When Friendship Sours: Vengeance & Bearing a Grudge



Reprinted from A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice (Schocken Books).

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)

“It was taught: Which is vengeance and which is bearing a grudge? If one said: Lend me your scythe, and she was refused; and the next day the other said to her: Lend me your spade–If she replied: I will not lend it to you, just as you did not lend it to me–this is vengeance; and if she replied: Here it is–I am not like you, who do not lend–this is bearing a grudge.” (Babylonian Talmud [BT], Yoma 23a)

vengeance and grudges in friendshipIn the concepts of vengeance and bearing a grudge, we can see the playing out of broken relationships. There is neither gossip nor hatred [which, along with reproving an evildoer, were mentioned in the preceding verses in Leviticus]. There is no great hurt and the vengeance being described is not of the Hatfield and McCoy kind. What is described is the everyday interactions of people. It involves keeping score and generosity.

The difference between vengeance and bearing a grudge as understood by the rabbis is clear. Vengeance is acting in a tit-for-tat fashion–I won’t lend something to you because you wouldn’t lend to me. Bearing a grudge is a verbal withholding and attack. It also seems to put us on the high moral ground, though really our act of generosity isn’t generous at all. Either way, by withholding or by giving grudgingly, we are responding to the other person’s need improperly. We have become locked by them, and thereby with them, in a cycle of revenge–an endless loop until someone breaks it.

There is another reason that this verse about vengeance and bearing a grudge follows the previous verse about reproof. What if you attempt to reprove someone and they just don’t hear you? What if the next day they come over to borrow something from you?

Our verse teaches that even if past hurts are unresolved, there is still a proper way to act. You should lend your scythe or your bowl of sugar. You are not to do so ungraciously. The first part of the verse does not tell you what you should be feeling as you lend this person your scythe. It just tells you to do it and what not to say. However, the verse does end with an ideal goal–that is, to love others.

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Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.

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