“The Prohibition of Taking Revenge”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kedoshim, we find the ever-popular verse of Leviticus 19:18, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, Love thy neighbor as thyself. Rabbi Akiva (1st and 2nd century Talmudic sage) felt this verse to be so vital, that he declared, (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4), זֶה כְּלָל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה, this is a fundamental principle of Torah.

It is fascinating to note that few people are aware that this popular verse is preceded by the words (Leviticus 19:18), לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ , You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people…you should love your neighbor as yourself, I am the L-rd.

While it may be part of human nature to seek revenge, the Torah forbids acting on the desire for revenge, or to even hold a grudge. The Talmud, in Yomah 23a, provides a famous illustration to distinguish between taking revenge and bearing a grudge. If a person asks his neighbor to lend him a sickle, but he refuses, and on the next day, the neighbor asks to borrow an ax, he may not reply, “I will not lend you my ax, because you did not lend me your sickle.” This is revenge. Also, if a person asks his neighbor to lend him a sickle and he refuses, and on the next day the neighbor asks him to lend him a garment, one may not say, “Here is the garment, I am not like you,” because that is bearing a grudge.

Maimonides, in his Code of Jewish Law, The Laws of Knowledge 7:7-8, notes that to feel a sense of outrage because someone has refused to lend you a sickle is to magnify the importance of the sickle. Material things are just not that important. Maimonides understands the prohibition against bearing a grudge, as a means of avoiding the more serious offense of being vengeful. In order to have a well-established society and proper social life, these negative attitudes must be eliminated.

The Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4, provides an illustration of a man who cuts his hand while cutting meat. That person will certainly not be so foolish to “punish” the hand that did the damage by cutting it. Just as the “other hand” is part of the same person’s body, the other person, our neighbor, is part of our people and our society as well. Harming our neighbor is similar to harming one’s own body.

The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch asserts that the act of revenge is forbidden, because, in effect, it is like sitting in judgment of one’s neighbor. Only G-d alone can judge a person’s actions. When negative events occur, the victim must ask, why did G-d allow my neighbor to do such a nasty thing to me in the first place.

The Alshich notes that just as G-d is slow to show anger, so must human beings imitate G-d and not respond swiftly with vengefulness. One should allow time for the perpetrator to mend his/her ways, and hopefully apologize for the evil done. While avoiding vengeance, one may surely rebuke one’s neighbor for a wrong or unkind act. The reproof will, hopefully, lead to repentance on the part of the perpetrator.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his Path of the Just, describes the offense of hatred and revenge in the following human terms:

These [negative behaviors], the human heart in its perversity, finds it hard to escape. A man is very sensitive to disgrace, and suffers keenly when subjected to it. Revenge is sweeter to him than honey; he cannot rest until he has taken his revenge. If, therefore, he has the power to relinquish that to which his nature impels him; if he can forgive; if he will forbear hating anyone who provokes him to hatred; if he will neither exact vengeance when he has the opportunity to do so, nor bear a grudge against anyone; if he can forget and obliterate from his mind a wrong done to him as though it had never been committed; then he is, indeed, strong and mighty.

Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg would say, “Do not be vengeful or spiteful. Love your companion as yourself. After all, you frequently err as well. You too are frequently guilty of wrongful acts and often act without giving a matter sufficient thought or consideration. Would you ever think of taking revenge upon yourself?”

The Talmud in Yomah 23a cites the following passage as an ideal toward which to strive: “Concerning those who are insulted by others and do not respond by insulting others, who hear themselves reproached without replying, who perform good deeds out of love and rejoice in their sufferings, Scripture (Judges 5:31) says: “But they that love Him, be as the sun, when he {the sun] goes forth in his might.”

May we all merit to be regarded in the Al-mighty’s eyes as those who, like the sun, bring much light into the world!

May you be blessed.

The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday night, April 20th, and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 21st and 22nd.

חג כשר ושמח.

Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.