Who Are We? Part l
Chapter 7, Law 8(a)
"So too anyone who bears a grudge against any Jew transgresses a negative
prohibition, as it is stated, 'And you shall not bear a grudge against the
members of your nation' (Leviticus 19:18). How is this? Reuben said to
Simeon, 'Rent me this house' or 'Lend me this ox,' and Simeon refused. Some
time later, Simeon needed Reuben to borrow or rent from him. Reuben says to
him, 'Here it is; behold I am lending to you, and I am not as you and I
won't pay you back as your deeds.' One who acts like this transgresses 'you
shall not bear a grudge.'
"Rather, [a person] should blot the matter from his heart and not preserve
it. For so long as he keeps it in mind and remembers it he may come to
vengeance. Therefore, the Torah was particular regarding bearing a grudge
that one blot the sin out of his heart entirely and not remember it. This is
a proper character trait ('dai'ah'), through which it will be possible to
preserve society (lit., 'the dwelling of the land') and the interaction of
mankind one with the other."
Last week the Rambam discussed the prohibition of taking revenge on one's
fellow. This week, he moves on to a closely related topic, mentioned in the
same verse of the Torah: bearing a grudge.
Although this prohibition appears to relate primarily to one's thoughts, the
Rambam (based on Talmud Yoma 23a) illustrates bearing a grudge in terms of
*acting* upon one's resentment -- here by giving your well-rehearsed lecture
to your fellow about how *you're* not like *him* etc. Thus, presumably, just
hating your fellow in your heart is not forbidden, only doing something on
account of it. And as opposed to revenge in which you actively strike back
at your fellow, bearing a grudge is not avenging him directly but making it
clear to him that your hatred is still there (this being your golden
opportunity to really stick it to him).
This, however, does not seem entirely correct either. The Rambam here
continues, "Therefore, the Torah was particular regarding bearing a grudge
that one blot the sin out of his heart entirely and not remember it."
Likewise, last week when the Rambam described the evil of revenge -- which
does involves doing an action -- he added, "Rather, it is proper for a
person to be easygoing regarding all matters of the world." And similarly
there: "Rather, when [his fellow] comes to him to borrow, he should give
Based on this, it is clear that the Torah has in mind our emotions. When it
forbade avenging or bearing a grudge, the meaning -- ideally -- is that we
not even care about it or bear resentment in our hearts (this being only for
transient matters which caused no financial harm, as we discussed last
week). Yet at the same time, *technically*, the Torah only forbade acting
upon our resentment, doing an act which indicates to our fellow our hurt is
And this makes for a very central point in Jewish thought. With very few
exceptions, the Torah commands us on the level of action alone. We are very
rarely commanded in how we must feel on the inside. As we discussed in past
classes (see 6:5), when the Torah
forbade hating our fellow (Leviticus 19:17), according to the Rambam the
meaning was not that we do not hate, but that we do not hate and bottle it
up, leaving animosities to fester and grow. Likewise, the famous dictum
"Love your fellow as yourself" (ibid., v. 18), primarily refers to how we
must act towards our fellow, not what we must feel in our hearts (see 6:3). And finally, yet another
"touchy-feely" one -- "You shall not covet" (Exodus 20:14, final of the Ten
Commandments) -- according to the Sages refers specifically to acting on our
desires -- such as intimidating a person into selling us what we covet.
Thus, even some of the most emotion-laden commandments of the Torah, which
clearly relate to man's basic feelings, *technically* command us on the
level of action alone. And the reason for this is quite simple. G-d cannot
"command" us how we must feel. If we hate someone, how do we just change our
emotions? Or how do we just "turn on" loving our fellow if we hardly know
him from Adam -- or say he just rubs us the wrong way? Regarding this week's
commandment, bearing a grudge, the Rambam told us not even to *remember*
what our fellow did. Can we control our memory? Thus, the Torah -- apart
from every other superlative we might attribute to it an enormously
practical book -- commands only on the level of action: *treat* your fellow
as if you love him, do not *act* on your hatreds or jealousies, do not
actively *show* your fellow your resentment is still there. For hopefully by
acting a certain way, it will eventually penetrate your innards.
And this is not just a reasonable workaround. In truth, the best means of
effecting our emotions is by improving our actions. We can spend all day
contemplating the importance of loving our neighbor and acting courteously
towards others, but practically it means nothing until we actually have to
live with and get along with them. (How many unmarried (or many-times
divorced) marriage counselors are out there?) And this is not at all unlike
learning any other life skill. You can study "how to swim" only so much.
Sooner or later you just have to jump in and *really* learn it. And
likewise, we all know the enormous difference between learning professional
skills in school and actually putting them to use in the workplace. You
don't really know a subject until you've used it.
All of this introduces a fascinating idea. We are taught by the Torah to act
a certain way even if our emotions are not there in the hope that they will
eventually follow. But let's say our emotions have *not* followed -- at
least yet. Say on the inside a person seethes with hatreds, jealousies and
lusts, yet on the outside he appears an entirely upstanding, law-abiding
individual. He fantasizes about all sorts of awful, perverted behavior
within yet his thoughts never lead him to action. Who is such a person
really? *Is* he his forced behavior without, or is he truly his drives and
emotions within? Is G-d going to reward such a person as His faithful
servant if G-d knows full well that his behavior is all an act and not an
expression of who the person truly is?
Or alternatively, a person may feel -- quite correctly -- that his soul
within is entirely sublime and pure. *He* aspires to the highest standards
of behavior. *He* feels enormously close to and bound to his Creator. Just
at times, his body has not the strength to live up to his convictions. Who
is the real person?
We tend to think that we are our feelings underneath. We *really* are our
inner selves -- the set of values, feelings and emotions which constitute
our souls. The fact that our behavior does not always add up is a
unintentional deviation, an anomaly. But is this true? Are we whom we strive
to be (or fantasize being), or are we our sometimes forced, sometimes
There are two factors to consider here, based in part on the writings of R.
Chaim Volozhiner (1749-1821, primary student of the Vina Gaon and one of the
leaders of Lithuanian Jewry) in his classic work Nefesh HaChaim. In
considering which aspect of us is more primary, our thoughts or our actions,
there are two distinct considerations. On the one hand, our actions are much
more concrete and tangible. They produce a far greater impact -- on
ourselves and the world about. Our actions constitute the sum total of who
we and what we have achieved in this world.
At the same time, our actions are more external to us. They are much less a
reflection of whom we truly are. As we all know, we often do actions where
our souls are not really there. *We* -- our inner selves -- truly did not
want to act that way, but we could not control our bodies (or our mouths).
Our actions thus *do* more, but stem from a lower part of our beings.
Our thoughts, on the other hand, are much more subtle and slight -- doing
far less damage to the world about, yet they are much more internal to us.
They stem from a much higher and loftier part of our souls. If I spend time
fantasizing about evil behavior, I have not *done* anything, yet to use the
Nefesh HaChaim's metaphor (I:4), I have brought an idolatry straight into
the Holy of Holies. Such thoughts cut very deep, into the inner recesses of
my soul. They do less, but strike further. And corruption in the uppermost
chambers of my soul will most certainly have devastating ramifications
throughout the rest of my being.
(Needless to say, in this we are not talking about thoughts which
involuntarily pop into our minds. We are all human. The concern regards
thoughts we consciously choose to dwell upon.)
In this light, the Talmud states, "The fantasizing about a sin is more
serious than the sin [itself]" (Yoma 29a). A sin is terrible, but at times
it was the weakness of the flesh which drew a reluctant soul after it.
Thinking, fantasizing, anticipating about and reminiscing over a sin: such
can destroy the soul far more than a person's momentary lack of self-control.
There is much more to say on this topic. G-d willing next week we will see
that in this very simple distinction lies the key to understanding G-d's
relationship with man both in this world and in the Next. Stay tuned! :-)
Oh, and by the way, a happy Chanukah to all my readers!
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org