|Back to Parsha homepage||
by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
|Archive of previous issues|
You shall not take revenge, nor shall you retain animosity against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Grodna took care of the needs of all the poor and unfortunate people in his city. He used to personally visit all the city's hotels to solicit funds for the poor from the guests, and he also collected money from the permanent dwellers of the city.
Once, he knocked on the door of a hotel room in which a lawyer from Grodna was conversing with a high government official from St. Petersburg, who happened to be Jewish. When the lawyer opened the door and saw Rabbi Nachum standing there, he understood that he had come to collect money, and said to him angrily, "I do not have time for you. Please go away."
But Rabbi Nachum was persistent and would not leave. He told the man, "All I want is a donation for the poor people in this town. But the lawyer angrily slammed the door in the rabbi's face.
Because someone had witnessed this incident, word quickly spread throughout the city that the tzaddik Rabbi Nachum had been insulted by an arrogant lawyer, and people were furious for daring to insult someone whom everyone honored and respected. Rabbi Nachum did not ask for an apology and did not discuss the incident with anyone, and after a while the matter seemed to have been forgotten.
Some time later, the lawyer was taken to court and accused of a serious crime, which would have severe consequences for him. The case against him was so strong, that there seemed to be no hope for an acquittal. However, he thought that his last chance might be to appeal to the influential official from St. Petersburg to try to arrange some way out for him by using his connections. And so he traveled to St. Petersburg and went immediately to the official's villa, hoping to meet with him before he left for his ministry.
The lawyer gave a message to the guard stationed outside the official's residence, saying that an old friend had arrived and requests an audience with the official. The guard returned a few minutes later with the message that the official was busy and had no time to see him.
"Did you tell him it was me?" asked the lawyer.
"I surely did," answered the guard.
The astonished lawyer could not understand this. He thought, "How could the official whom I have known for many years not agree to see me?" He then gave a coin to the guard and asked him to find out what the problem was. But the guard returned with the same answer, that the official had no time for him.
"Try again this evening when His Excellency comes home from the ministry, and I will remind him that you are here to see him," suggested the guard.
The lawyer agreed and returned that evening, but to no avail. He received the same reply, that the official did not have time for him. The lawyer then returned to his hotel room in despair. He knew that without the official's help, he did not stand a chance of being acquitted in his forthcoming trial. Finally he decided that the only option left to him was to come again the next morning and try to catch the official as he was leaving his house on his way to the Ministry. Perhaps if I beg him to help me, he will have mercy, he thought, now quite desperate.
Early the next morning, he intercepted the official as he was leaving his house. The desperate man removed his hat, bowed very low, and in a pleading voice called out to the official, "Greetings, my old friend!" But the official still did not take any notice of him; he simply got into his waiting coach and departed.
Now the lawyer saw clearly that the official was deliberately turning his back on him. But what could he do? He simply could not leave St. Petersburg without seeking the official's help, since his trial was soon, and he knew that without his help he would be doomed. He had no other choice but to find an opportunity to fall at the official's feet and plead with tears for mercy.
And so that evening he went back to the official's villa and did just that. Finally the official revealed to the distraught lawyer why he had refused to see him.
"Just as you once dared to close the door on our revered Rabbi Nachum, so do you deserve that the door should be closed on you too," said the official. The lawyer tried to justify himself, but the official interrupted him saying, "I will not listen to any excuses. The only thing that you can do if you want any help from me is to go back to Grodna and beg Rabbi Nachum to forgive you for having been so disrespectful to him. I will not consider seeing you again until you bring me a note from him saying he has forgiven you for your sin. Without that note, you have no chance of seeing me, and the door will be closed to you. The reason is the same one you gave Rabbi Nachum to get rid of him, 'I do not have time for you. 'Now you can see how it feels to have that used against you…"
Despondent, the lawyer left St. Petersburg and traveled the long distance to Grodna in Lithuania, hoping to obtain the note that he needed. Rabbi Nachum, a pillar of kindness and mercy, received him warmly, and when he heard his request, he forgave him with all his heart, and immediately sat down to write the note. In the note he wrote, "I was never insulted or hurt by what tile lawyer did, and after it was over, I never gave the matter a moment's thought,"
With the note, the lawyer quickly returned to Petersburg, and this time he was received by the official promptly and with courtesy, as in the old days. The official used his considerable influence and pulled the strings needed, so that the lawyer was acquitted.
Rabbi Nachum did not take revenge on the lawyer, in spite of the fact that he had an easy opportunity to do so. He forgave with all his heart. We must do the same in marriage and forgive any mistakes our spouses make.
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak, "Any talmid chacham who is not revengeful and does not retain animosity like a snake, is not a talmid chacham."
The Talmud asks, "How can that be? It is written, 'You shall not take revenge, nor shall you retain animosity.' "1
The Talmud replies, "The above verse is only, referring to monetary matters as we have learned in 'a discussion on this verse: 'Revenge' refers to when one says, 'Lend me your scythe.' The other answers, 'No!' The next day the other one says, 'Lend me your spade.' He answers, 'I will not lend to you just as you did not lend to me.' This is revenge. What is retaining animosity? One says, 'Lend me your spade.' The other answers, 'No!' The next day the other one says, 'Lend me your shirt.' He answers, 'Take it. I am not like you who is not willing to lend.' This is keeping animosity."
[In another place on this same topic] we have learned: 'Those who are embarrassed but do not embarrass others, those who hear their disgrace but do not disgrace others, those who perform all their actions because of their love of G-d and are content with suffering - referring to such people the verse
says, "And those who love Him are like the sun in its full blaze."2
[Also on this topic] Rava said, "When one forgives and does not care at all when he is embarrassed, so, too, will G-d forgive him all his sins. And forgiving means removing all animosity from his heart."
Why must a talmid chacham be revengeful as a snake, and why should he be different from others, who are expected to show self-restraint? How can we comply with the Torah's command not to take revenge, when we know that it is a natural tendency in human beings to do so? How does one control one's heart, so as not to retain animosity when he feels that he has been treated wrongly? Why is someone who tolerates his embarrassment and disgrace compared to the sun in its full blaze? Why does G-d forgive someone who forgives others?
A talmid chacham is different from others in the respect that anyone who learns Torah constantly, and carries its banner, is also responsible for the honor of the Torah. Therefore, he must do his utmost that it should not be despised or insulted. When he talmid chacham is insulted, the honor of the Torah itself is also at stake, and he is duty-bound to avenge the honor of the Torah.
Similarly we find that the Jewish people were commanded to take revenge against Midian, as it says, "Take revenge, children of Israel."3 Thus even though the Torah does not allow revenge or keeping animosity when it involves a personal matter, when the h onor of the Jewish people or the Torah is at stake, revenge is not only permitted but may even be demanded.
On the other hand taking personal revenge is forbidden, despite the fact that it is a natural tendency. One must overcome this natural tendency by strengthening one's belief in G-d. When a person realizes that whatever anyone does to him is planned from Above, he will be able to overcome the temptation to take revenge. Why should you crave revenge when it was G-d who specifically arranged for a person to do something against you?
This does not contradict the fact that every person has free will. Here the Torah is saying that the person still has free will to decide whether to harm you or not, but the one intended to suffer cannot evade what is coming to him. The messenger of the suffering can vary but its arrival is inevitable. What warrants the suffering is not necessarily linked to the messenger of the harm, but may likely depend on other considerations altogether.
The Torah demands of us that we control our hearts and do not feel any animosity towards another person. We find elsewhere that the Torah expects a person to control his feelings. "And you shall know today and reflect in your heart." 4 A person's thoughts are largely determined by that to which he gives his attention, so if a person has bad thoughts about someone, he himself is responsible for this animosity, since he could have controlled it if he had tried hard enough.
One way to overcome animosity is to do positive things for the person you have a tendency to dislike. Buy the person a gift, smile at him, or go to visit him. Even though your emotions are to the contrary, do something that shows positive feelings towards him, because once you do these actions, you will gradually, but inevitably affect your heart.
A verse says, "Just as water shows a face when shown a face, so also is the heart shown to one who shows his heart." 5 The way you feel in your heart towards another person, so will that person feel in his heart towards you. You can control the feelings of another person about you by feeling positively about him. It is up to you. Why should you have someone feel animosity towards you, when, if you are willing to change your heart, you 'all change the other person's heart towards you too.
Our Sages compare the person who suffers embarrassment to the sun in full blaze. The sun is an awesomely powerful force and no one can withstand it. A person who is willing to be embarrassed and not retaliate is seen as having such Power because he has overcome his natural tendency to take revenge, He is able to rule himself and does not let his evil inclination rule him. That is real power.
Another explanation is that the sun is the source which gives heat, while it does not receive its heat from others. The person who can tolerate being embarrassed by other people and doe, not retaliate is a person who only wants to give to others, never to take. He feels that if he would retaliate he would be taking from others by demanding from them that his honor be restored. Instead he wants to be the one who is giving of himself, just like the sun.
Why does G-d forgive someone who forgives others? We could answer simply that it is midah keneged midah, which means that you are repaid in the same manner in which you act. But there could be another explanation. Forgiving others shows that a person is humble rather than haughty. Often pride fuels the desire for revenge. One who has subdued his pride is willing to take blows without striking back and to refrain from holding grudges because he is well aware of his own shortcomings and mistakes. It is easy for such a person to forgive those who have wronged him, as Rabbi Nachum did in the story.
These same elements are also important for successful repentance. To succeed in repenting, a person must have his sights set on the future and not allow past mistakes to prevent him from making spiritual progress. He must be willing to admit his mistakes, make amends, and be ready to make a new start. These are the same characteristics found in one who can pardon those who harm him. Thus we can understand how G-d forgives those who forgive others, since they are already on the road to repentance.
Forgiving is extremely important in marriage too. Since we are all only human, we all makes mistakes. One must never hold a grudge against one's spouse but should Always forgive, just. as Rabbi Nachum was quick to forgive and held no grudge against the arrogant lawyer. Always try to put yourself in your spouse's place. Would you like someone to always remind you of your old mistakes, or would you prefer being forgiven for what you have done? Treat your spouse a you would want to be treated yourself
It is a selfish and arrogant character trait not to be forgiving towards others. Our Sages say that there are three character traits that distinguish the Jews from others: they are bashful, they are full of pity for others, and they do kindness. 6 When you forgive your spouse, you are exercising all three of these positive Jewish character traits. You are bashful, since you know that you also make mistakes and are ashamed to hold a grudge when you yourself are not perfect. You have pity, since You realize that it hurts your spouse when you do not forgive. Arid you are kind to your spouse when you overlook his/her shortcomings.
Besides that, imagine the tremendous reward you will receive for forgiving: all of your own sins will be forgiven. A person who is married may find that his spouse is constantly making mistakes. He therefore has numerous opportunities to forgive and gain that tremendous reward of having all his sins forgiven.
Every time we perceive a fault in our spouses we should really rejoice, for this means that we have been given another opportunity to forgive and have all our sins forgiven. Being married provides us with a constant test of character Your patience, humility, and capacity for kindness are constantly being tested. The more successful we are in passing the test, the greater will be our reward in the World to Come and the greater will be our chances of having a wonderful marriage.
1. Vayikra 19:18
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network