The Serpent's Revenge
Chapter 7, Law 7
"One who takes revenge against his fellow transgresses a negative
prohibition as it is stated, 'You shall not take revenge' (Leviticus 19:18).
Even though one does not receive lashes [for transgressing this], it is an
exceedingly bad spiritual quality. Rather, it is proper for a person to be
easygoing / yielding (Heb. 'ma'avir' = 'passing') in all matters of the
world, for to those of understanding everything is empty and vain and not
"What is vengeance? One's fellow says to him, 'Lend me your spade' He
responds: 'I will not lend it to you.' The next day, he needs to borrow it
[the same tool] from his fellow. He says to him 'Lend me your spade.' [The
fellow] says to him, 'I will not lend it to you just as you did not lend it
to me when I asked you.' This is vengeance. Rather, when [his fellow] comes
to him to borrow, he should give wholeheartedly, not paying [his fellow]
back as he did to him. So too with anything similar. Likewise did David say
in his fine qualities, '[...if there is injustice in my hands,] if I have
paid back evil to those at peace with me. [But rather,] I have strengthened
my tormentors gratuitously' (Psalms 7:5)."
After spending several weeks discussing the evils of lashon hara, of
malicious gossip, the Rambam at last moves on to another area of character
development, the prohibition of taking revenge. The Rambam both defines this
prohibition and offers a few words of advice why such behavior is unbecoming
for the understanding soul.
The words of the Rambam this week are readily understandable and need no
great embellishment. Taking revenge, paying one's fellow back tit for tat,
is just a lowly way to act. Its "sweetness" is none other than an indication
of just how sinful it is, and thus how powerfully our evil inclinations
attempt to lure us into its trap.
One important introductory point before we begin. It goes without saying
that if my fellow *actually* wrongs me -- causing me physical, financial or
even emotional damage, I have every right to demand compensation. That is
not "revenge"; it is merely exacting payment for real damages. Revenge is
going beyond reparation, bearing a grudge beyond what I deserve by law.
Alternatively, as in the Rambam's example, revenge is avenging a wrong
perpetrated against me which caused no tangible harm. Here my fellow merely
refrained from doing me a favor I felt coming to me.
Now on to more substantial points. First of all, the Rambam here admits that
one does not receive lashes for taking revenge. Thirty-nine lashes is the
standard punishment for most of the prohibitions of the Torah. Yet somehow,
as bad as revenge is, one who exacts it from his fellow goes off scot-free.
(Of course, if you harm your fellow or damage his property in the process,
you would be obligated to pay for that. But in the Rambam's case -- where
you merely refrain from doing him a favor -- there would be no
consequences.) Why is this?
The simple answer is as follows. There is a Talmudic principle that one does
not receive lashes for breaking a prohibition without doing an action. For
example, if a person takes an oath that he will do something -- say he will
eat 5-9 servings of fruit before the end of the day (or is it 3-5?), he
breaks his oath by sitting back and *not* doing anything for the rest of the
day. Likewise according to the majority opinion in the Talmud, speech is not
considered an "action". Thus, one who testifies falsely or speaks lashon
hara cannot receive lashes.
The same holds true regarding revenge. In the Rambam's illustration, our
anti-hero took revenge by *not* doing anything -- by refraining from lending
his spade to his fellow -- as well as by adding a few choice words to rub it
in. Regardless, his revenge involved no physical action and so did not
warrant lashes. As we'll see G-d willing next week, the true answer is
actually much more subtle -- and profound -- but we'll leave it with this
basic thought for now.
The Rambam continues that vengeance is unwarranted because matters of this
world are simply not worth getting worked up over. Somebody else slighted
you or refused to help you out? So you're out a convenience or a few bucks?
What really does it matter in the scheme of things? Is it really worth
losing your cool, sacrificing your self-control and sense of dignity over
something which no one will remember six months from now?
I've had more than one occasion in one of my past jobs in which I was all
ready to fire off an angry email at some of my coworkers -- until my dear
friend one cubicle over prevailed upon me that it just wasn't worth it. The
supposed wrong I was ready to flame over would quickly pass; the angry words
uttered (or emailed) would be less soon forgotten. Most of the things which
upset us in life are just not worth the effort. More important that we
preserve our discipline and self-worth as human beings in G-d's image than
that we air every snide remark stewing in our brains.
There is, however, an important distinction here, clearly implied by the
Rambam's wording. The Rambam stated that we should be yielding regarding all
matters of the world since all such things are empty and vain. It sounds
strongly that the Rambam means matters of this world alone -- a world of
fleetingness in which nothing truly matters. But what of spiritual issues
and eternal matters? Say my fellow refused to recommend me to a yeshiva
(rabbinical college) or as a competent study partner for another?
Once, years ago -- while I was dating my wife, actually, so much was on my
mind -- I was a guest at another's home for the Sabbath, near where my
future wife was staying. With everything going on, I was so wiped out that I
went to rest on Sabbath afternoon and fell into a deep sleep. My host had so
much "sympathy" for me that he decided not to wake me up -- and I slept
straight through Mincha (afternoon services), the final Sabbath meal, and
the Ma'ariv (evening services) after the Sabbath. And I was quite upset with
him about it at the time. (I won't share further details but we're still
close today. ;-) But again, if someone wrongs me in things *spiritual* which
*do* matter, do I have the right to bear a grudge?
In truth, the Talmud (Yoma 22-23) makes a very similar distinction. It
states: "Any Torah scholar who does not avenge and bear a grudge like a
snake is no Torah scholar." It bases this upon King Saul. At the beginning
of Saul's reign, Scripture states that there were unruly people who openly
and insultingly questioned Saul's competence to rule and to deliver them
from their enemies. They refused to offer him tribute (I Samuel 10:27). Now
such behavior is acceptable in a democratic society which guarantees freedom
of speech, but not towards a G-d-appointed absolute monarch. But Saul,
humble and unassuming man he was, let it pass. States the Talmud there,
because Saul was so self-effacing -- almost implying he in fact *was*
unworthy of kingship (Rashi there), he eventually did lose his throne.
But, continues the Talmud, is not revenge expressly forbidden by the Torah?
Answers the Talmud that that is in monetary issues, but if a person pains me
I may bear a grudge. After a little more discussion the Talmud concludes
that even in matters of "pain" one may bear a grudge in his heart but
preferably should not act against his fellow (save in King Saul's case or in
the case of a Torah scholar (who must be "snakelike"), as the honor of G-d's
monarch or His Torah is at stake). And finally, concludes the Talmud, if the
one who wronged me asks for forgiveness, I should forgive him even in such
The Rambam's ruling here is clearly based upon the Talmudic passage above.
Not lending me a hammer is a far cry from disgracing me or interfering with
my spiritual growth. In serious matters, it would be remiss of me *not* to
care. In fact, elsewhere the Talmud states that we should *cleave* to the
Torah scholar who "takes revenge... as a snake" (Shabbos 63a). Such people
clearly care dearly about truth and the Torah's importance. And they will
not rest until its true meaning is established. By contrast, someone who is
relaxed about the Torah's honor may not apply himself to it with the same
(In truth, the Rambam's distinction between temporal and eternal is hardly
identical to the Talmud's pain versus finances. The commentators struggle to
understand the basis for the Rambam's shift in understanding.)
In conclusion, I personally found this week's law very refreshing. What at
first seemed an unrealistically high demand -- that we not even bear a
grudge when our fellow wrongs us, is actually well within our reach. The
Torah is not asking that we turn ourselves into zombies, that we feel no
resentment towards those who wrong us. This is the case only regarding
monetary matters which truly do not matter -- for does not G-d ultimately
control our bottom lines? Yet in matters of religion and honor I may well
bear a grudge. Certainly I must be forgiving -- if he asks for it, that is,
and does so sincerely. And as we learned not far back, rather than bottling
things up I should confront my fellow when he wrongs me (6:5). Yet
G-d does not ask that we not be human beings. The G-d who created us knows
what we are and are not capable of. And so, through the combination of
challenging heights yet realistic, realizable goals we may achieve true
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org