Parashat Kedoshim

איזו היא נקימה ואיזו היא נטירה נקימה אמר לו השאילני מגלך אמר לו לאו למחר אמר לו הוא השאילני קרדומך אמר לו איני משאילך כדרך שלא השאלתני זו היא נקימה ואיזו היא נטירה א"ל השאילני קרדומך אמר ליה לא למחר א"ל השאילני חלוקך אמר לו הילך איני כמותך שלא השאלתני זו היא נטירה
What is vengeance and what is bearing a grudge? Vengeance is when one says to their fellow, “Lend me your sickle?” They refuse. The next day, the one who refused says “Lend me your axe,” and he tells him “Just as you refused to lend me, so will I refuse to lend you.” That’s vengeance. What is a grudge? If one says to their fellow, “Lend me your axe,” and the other refuses. The next day, the one who refused says “Lend me your cloak,” and the other replies “Take it, for I am not like you who refuses to lend me anything.” That’s holding a grudge. — Yoma 23a

The Torah asks something huge of us. Not only does the Torah demand we not take revenge on those who wrong us, it demands that we don’t even express our annoyance when someone wrongs us. It’s unnatural. If someone does me a favor, I want to do them a favor back. If they wrong me, I naturally feel less apt to help in the future. Am I really a bad person for not instantly  forgiving and forgetting? Why does the Torah put the demand on the wronged person rather than on the fellow who did the wronging. 

The Hizkuni explains like the Gemara that the case in question is when one party refused to do the other a favor, and the other either took revenge by reciprocating in kind or rubbed the fact that they did not act the same way in the first party’s face. Indeed the first party who refused to do the favor is stingy and has a bad character trait, but still the Torah does not force them to share. But the second party used to be a better sort. They would freely do their neighbor a favor and still will, only now they have become infected with hatred as a result of the prior experience and will do so only grudgingly. It’s not appropriate, says Gd. “Let their love that they still possess overcome the hatred that they now also possess for the sake of peace.” Do not let others ruin your good qualities. It is precisely because the second party was such a loving sort that hatred is so unbecoming their character.

Nevertheless, the Torah is not asking one to become a doormat. As all the commentators including the Hizkuni are quick to point out, the Talmudic understanding of this case is only with regard to a monetary matter. If one was physically wronged or insulted, one is not obligated to continue to freely dispense favor upon the aggressor. Indeed in the paradigm case in the Talmud, the object of the grudge never caused direct damage, even financial. They simply prevented the other party from borrowing a tool. However in a case of direct damage, then one can certainly avenge oneself, but it should be done through the court.

Further, the Talmud began its discussion by asserting sometimes a grudge is necessary. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav that King Saul’s downfall started because he wouldn’t take revenge. When he was made king, there were people who openly questioned his qualifications to rule, and he pretended that he did not hear them. His lack of a response to this disrespect made him appear weak in the eyes of Ammon, who immediately began to assail Israel’s border. Even after defeating Ammon, Saul still failed to treat himself as a king and punish those who wronged him. Because he wouldn’t take action against those who wronged him, Saul wasn’t able to assert authority. 

Even a Torah scholar is sometimes obligated to bear a grudge and not let slights to the honor of the Torah go unanswered. A cause which no one is willing to defend is cheapened in the eyes of onlookers. Furthermore, it is fear of future consequences that encourages fairness in the present. Therefore, one should not turn the other cheek, but rather stand up for justice and sometimes respond with outrage when the situation calls for it.

Still, even when revenge is necessary, one has to remember the dictum of the Hizkuni. “Let their love that they still possess overcome the hatred that they now also possess for the sake of peace.” We should not allow others to permanently ruin the good qualities we possess. Stand up for what’s right, but don’t let hatred become part of your character.