Overcoming Humanity

It is human nature. When someone wrongs us, we want to retaliate. We are infuriated and hold onto memories of these “wrongs,” and when given the opportunity, we respond in kind.

Taking revenge is prohibited in Judaism.

Maimonides writes about revenge in his code of Jewish law:

Taking revenge is an extremely bad trait. A person should be accustomed to rise above his feelings about all worldly matters; for those who understand [the deeper purpose of the world] consider all these matters as vanity and emptiness, which are not worth seeking revenge for.” (Paraphrased from Mishneh Torah, De’ot 7:7.)

Rather, Maimonides continues, if someone who has wronged you comes to ask a favor, you should respond “with a complete heart.” As King David says in the Psalms, “Have I repaid those who have done evil to me? Behold, I have rescued those who hated me without cause”(Psalm 7:5).

In addition, Jewish law forbids us to bear a grudge. Thus, the Talmud explains, you may not even say to the person who wronged you that you will act rightly, even though he or she did not. (Talmud, Yoma, ibid.)

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his code of Jewish law concludes that, “one should erase any feelings of revenge from one’s heart and never remind oneself of it.”(Shulchan Aruch Harav, end of 156:3 [in the new Kehot editions (2001) p. 393].)

-Dovid Zaklikowski
“What Does Judaism Say About Taking Revenge?”
Learning and Values

You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:18

I’m actually a lot more calm about this issue than I have been in previous days, but as I was studying this morning (as I write this), the topic came up and I thought I should continue with my commentary on the nature of human beings and our desire to strike back when someone causes us pain.

It’s difficult to not want to immediately hit back when someone does something to hurt or scare us. The sudden power surge of adrenaline hits our blood stream and our reflexes take over. The guy who cuts you off in traffic nearly hitting you, or the shock of someone accidentally bumping into you on the sidewalk and practically knocking you off your feet almost always produces a split second of tremendous emotion that we have to overcome with reason.

Of course, that isn’t really revenge as much as it is biochemistry. Once we get past the instant of emotion, we can stop ourselves before we go into a “road rage” or actually form a fist and hit the person who by now, is apologizing for walking into us and is trying to steady us on our feet. Revenge is longer lasting. Revenge is the desire to “get even” with whoever offended us and to, even days, weeks, or months later, make sure they “pay” for what they’ve done to us, whether the injury was real or imagined.

Here’s a classic Jewish example of revenge:

Taking revenge is when you ask someone, “Lend me your sickle,” and he says no. The next day he comes to you and asks you “Lend me your hatchet.” You respond, “I am not lending to you, just like you did not lend to me.”

This is an example of revenge.

—The Talmud, Yoma 23a

But revenge goes beyond what you actually do. It involves what you think and how you feel. How many people never actually “take revenge” but nurse it in their hearts, sometimes for years, letting it blacken not only that one relationship, but everything they are as a person, right down to the core of their soul?

Not taking revenge is not just about modifying one’s actual actions; it is also that the thought of revenge never even enter one’s heart. (See Rabbi Jonah Gerondi (1180-1263), Shaarei Teshuvah 3:38. See Nachmanides on Leviticus, ad loc.)


That’s a tall order. It’s one thing to not act on the desire to take revenge or to even eventually put feelings of revenge aside, but it’s something else entirely to never experience thoughts or feelings of revenge in the first place when it would be otherwise expected to do so.

On the surface, the literal commandment we see in Leviticus 19:18 seems to address not acting on feelings of revenge and not carrying a grudge forward in time after the event, but how can you not have such thoughts and feelings in the first place? Zaklikowski’s response is this:

The verse prohibiting revenge ends with the famous maxim, “You should love your fellow as yourself.” Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, “Nachmanides,” explains that erasing the event from your heart will guarantee that you will never come to transgress the commandment, allowing you to love your fellow, no matter what transpires between the two of you. (Igeret HaKodesh, Epistle 25.)

As I said before, that’s a tall order. It would mean that we would have to harbor love in our hearts for others as a matter of course and to learn to habitually forgive those who have wronged us. These are qualities that go beyond normal human experience, emotion, and reason. These are the lessons we learn from God and are the results of a life lived in faith.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” -Plato

What would the world look like if we all internalized these lessons into our beings and committed to responding to our environment in this way all of the time?

When you look at a human being, you see his hands working, his feet walking, his mouth talking. You don’t see his heart, his brain, his lungs and kidneys. They work quietly, inside. But they are the essential organs of life.

The world, too, has hands and feet — those who are making the news and effecting change. The heart, the inner organs, they are those who work quietly from the inside, those unnoticed. Those who do a simple act of kindness without knowing its reward.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Inside Workers”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. –1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (ESV)



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