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.

Cycle of Revenge, Cycle of Love

The cycle of revenge is in stark contrast to the cycle of love set out at the end of the verse in the words “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The cyclical nature of the latter is emphasized by the addition of the word kamokha, “as yourself.” The verse would have been clear if it had said “Love your neighbor,” period. Adding “as yourself” creates a cycle between you, the other, and yourself.

This is one of the most famous verses in the Torah. It is Rabbi Akiva’s choice as the verse in the Torah. Similarly, when a convert asked Hillel to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel quoted him a restatement of this verse.

The highest ideal, as well as a summary of all that comes before, lies in these words: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How are we to understand this mitzvah?

The simplest understanding, the most literal, is that the verse asks us to do unto others what we would have them do unto us. What does it mean to “love” your neighbor? It means to act toward her in a loving way by being helpful and generous toward her just as we would want her to be helpful and generous toward us. Perhaps, after all, it is not so much a feeling of love as a behaving in a loving way. We then know how to fulfill this mitzvah in an almost utilitarian fashion: think how we want to be treated and act to the other accordingly.

How Much Love for One’s Fellow Human Being?

Ramban (Nahmanides, a [13th century] Bible commentator [from northern Spain]) sees a potential problem with this approach and adds another layer to it. He defines this verse as asking us to want for our neighbor whatever we would want for ourselves. He then highlights a problem of this linkage of kamokha, “as yourself.”

We may want good things for those we care for, but the “as yourself” could become a limit. I want good things for you but I want the best for me either out of a sense that there is not enough “best” to go around equally to everyone or simply out of a competitive feeling. Instead, kamokha, “as yourself,” teaches us that we should love the other as much as ourselves. We should move beyond the constricting coils of jealousy to a place of wanting the best for all those around us.

There is still another interpretation that moves the understanding of kamokha, “as yourself,” even further away from being you-centered. This understanding suggests that we should love our neighbor as ourself because our neighbor is just like us. We are all created b’tzelem elohim, “in the image of God.” We are commanded to love everyone because we are all fundamentally alike, all images of God. The mystics would say love the other because you and they are a part of the great Oneness of the world.

Love is relational and so is this commandment. We are called not just to cultivate an attitude of loving the other as some abstract principle. The love is in relation to the other. If we are to visit the sick because of this verse (as Maimonides states), we are only to visit the sick who want to be visited. This is not some absolute commandment to be fulfilled whether the other person wants it or not. The other person matters. It is a commandment that can only be fulfilled in relationship to the other. This love of the other is an affirmation of the self and the other.

True love is an affirmation both of the self and the other. The tradition contrasts this to another kind of love that is dependent on something: ahavah ha-t’luyah b’davar, “love that is conditional.” This is love that treats the other as an object. True love is unconditional because the other is just “like you,” kamokha. Kedushah, or “holiness,” is found when any two people are profoundly connected.

True love is not so common, yet the Torah calls us to try to remember who we are and who the other really is. The more we remember that we are all equal, all created in the image of God, the harder it will be to stereotype others, to want to gossip about them, to want to take revenge upon them. Instead, we recognize in their failings and foibles echoes of our own–that mixture of the divine and the flawed mortal.

Loving Everyone is a Demanding Requirement

In the end, the challenges of these verses from Leviticus can still seem overwhelming. Stop gossiping and love everyone! Yet each step in that direction is important. Each word of gossip left unsaid, each act of generosity, each word of loving reproof that brings change–each of these is of incalculable importance even amid all the times we do the opposite.

The Jewish tradition was aware both of how much was being asked of us and also of how little steps in the right direction can make a difference. The rabbinic comments on “love your neighbor” are not glowing paeans to love. Instead there are a series of comments along the following lines:

“Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: One is forbidden to marry someone before you see them, for perhaps you will find something in them that is unattractive which will make them displeasing to you; and the Torah has written: ‘And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (BT Kiddushin 41a)

Even in the act of executing a criminal, the principle of “love your neighbor” applies–not to forgive him but to grant him a humane death:

“The stoning platform [the condemned were thrown from the platform] was two floors in height. Was so much height needed to kill him? R. Nahman said: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself”–choose a humane death for him.’ [That is, the greater height made for a quicker death.]” (BT Sanhedrin 45a)

Thus, in every moment the potential to act from the context of these principles is present for us. We need to act in the everyday world in the confidence that every small positive act always makes a difference.

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