Replacing Vengeance With Love
Adapted from Parasha VeLikcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
The Torah commands the Jew to neither bear a grudge nor take revenge: “Do not take vengeance and do not bear a grudge” (CITATION MISSING). But does that mean that man is supposed to relinquish his rights? And if the desire for vengeance is burning in his belly, how can a person be commanded to overcome such powerful emotions?
Seemingly, this verse demands behaviors that are almost beyond human ability. One of the most cherished values of modern western society is spontaneous self-expression and the social norms presented by this verse seem to contradict that value completely. Are we being commanded to make ourselves a willing party to violence? Is the Torah demanding silence from the victim in the face of injustice?
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, foremost commentator on the entire corpus of Torah literature better known by his acronym Rashi, brings several concrete examples of how vengeance and bearing a grudge might take place in every day life:
“He says to him, ‘Lend me your sickle.’
“’No,’ he replies.
“The next day he (who refused to lend the sickle) says to him: ‘Lend me your axe.’
“’I am not lending it to you,’ responds the other man, ‘the same way you did not lend something to me.’
“This constitutes being vengeful. And what constitutes bearing a grudge?
“He says to him: ‘Lend me your axe.’
“’No,’ he replies.
“The next day he (who refused to lend the axe) says to him: ‘Lend me your sickle.’
“’Here it is,’ he replies, ‘I am not like you, who didn’t lend to me.’
“This constitutes bearing a grudge, for he (the lender) maintains his hostility towards him (the borrower) in his heart, even though he (the lender) does not behave vengefully.”
Let us delve into this issue more deeply. You asked your friend to lend you his sickle, and he has refused to do so. He has not caused you any damage nor has he harmed any possession of yours. All he has done is refused you a favor. You may not, says the verse, take vengeance on him as a reaction to his selfish behavior. However, Rashi’s examples teach us more than the moral imperative to overlook others’ selfish behavior. Rashi’s choice of the tools sickle and axe in his examples reveal the Torah’s intent in even greater detail.
The sickle is a hand-held agricultural tool much more prone to wear-and-tear than the axe. Sickles require sharpening, and are more easily damaged. In Rashi’s example, it is quite possible that the refusal to lend the sickle does not stem from ungenerous feelings. The owner of the sickle may be wary of the damage that the borrower will cause this delicate tool. He has a perfectly legitimate right to protect his property – he is not obligated to lend out tools to be damaged.
However, when the potential borrower, who was hurt by the refusal of the sickle’s owner, is not willing to lend him his axe, the situation is quite different. Axes are hardier implements. He is not concerned with the maintenance of his hardware. In refusing to lend his axe, he has only one intention: to express his feelings of anger and hatred.
By the details chosen for his example, Rashi highlights the heart of the matter: regardless of another person’s behavior, the Torah prohibits reactions stemming from instinctive anger.
Similarly in the second example, when the potential borrower lends out his axe accompanied by the choice epithets of, “You see, I am not like you; I do lend things out,” he is transgressing the Torah prohibition of bearing a grudge. Regardless of other people’s behavior, every Jew is commanded to overcome any residual feelings of anger. Torah requires lenders to share their possessions with neither contempt nor any feelings of superiority.
“Very nice!” one might say, “But can the Torah really expect of a person to behave in a manner completely devoid of any natural feeling? After all, we‘re just flesh and blood, human beings created with emotions, instincts, drives…”
And you would be quite right. Such a thing cannot be demanded of human beings. That is why the verse prohibiting vengeance and bearing a grudge ends with the words, “I am Hashem.”
The more a person is aware of the existence of the Almighty, the more elevated and all-encompassing his viewpoint becomes, both of life in general and of his situation in particular. The extent to which this awareness is alive within him is the extent to which any hatred and judgmentalism within him melt away on their own. Resentment and anger are dissolved as love and generosity, those great ideals, fill the Jewish heart and take their place.