Acharei Mot -Kedoshim תשפא
This coming Shabbath we will read the two Torah portions of אחרי מות and קדושים. In the second portion, Kedoshim, the Torah adjures us (Leviticus 19:18):
(יח) לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְדֹוָד.
19) Do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge against the members of your people; love your fellow as yourself. I am Hashem.
Rashi explains the difference between taking revenge and bearing a grudge:
Reuven asked his neighbor Shimon, “May I please borrow your lawnmower? Mine is in the shop.” Shimon responded, “Sorry, I don’t lend out my yard equipment.”
If at a later time Shimon comes to Reuven and asks him, “May I please borrow your wheelbarrow? I am moving around some dirt in my yard,” and Reuven responds, “No! You wouldn’t lend me your lawnmower, so I won’t lend you my wheelbarrow!” Where Reuven’s sole reason for not lending his wheelbarrow to Shimon is to get back at him for not lending him his lawn mower, that is revenge.
If, however, Reuven rather says to Shimon, “Sure you can borrow my wheelbarrow; I am not like you who wouldn’t lend me your lawn mower!” that is bearing a grudge, the verse’s second prohibition.
These commandments go against human nature. How could Hashem expect a person not to take revenge or to bear a grudge against the person who wronged him? What would it have hurt him to lend me his lawn mower? It would have cost him nothing! It looks to me like he was just being mean. So why should I be nice to him and act as if he did nothing wrong? Not only that—you’re telling me that I can’t even mention his meanness to him?
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato in the book Path of the Just – מסילת ישרים (Mesilat Yesharim – Chapter 11) says such a response is easy only for angels.
גַּם הַשִּנְאָה וְהַנְּקִימָה קָשָׁה מְאֹד לְשֶׁיִּמָּלֵט מִמֶּנּוּ לֵב הוּתַל אֲשֶׁר לִבְנֵי הָאָדָם, כִּי הָאָדָם מַרְגִּישׁ מְאֹד בְּעֶלְבּוֹנוֹתָיו, וּמִצְטַעֵר צַעַר גָּדוֹל. וְהַנְּקָמָה לוֹ מְתוּקָה מִדְבַשׁ, כִּי הִיא מְנוּחָתוֹ לְבַדָּה, עַל כֵּן לְשֶׁיִהְיֶה בְכוֹחוֹ לַעֲזוֹב מַה שֶׁטִבְעוֹ מַכְרִיחַ אוֹתוֹ, וְיַעֲבֹר עַל מִדּוֹתָיו וְלֹא יִשְֹנָא מִי שֶׁהֵעִיר בּוֹ הַשִּנְאָה וְלֹא יִקֹּם מִמֶּנּוּ בְּהִזְדַּמֵּן לוֹ שֶׁיּוּכַל לְהִנָּקֵם, וְלֹא יִטֹּר לוֹ, אֶלָּא אֶת הַכֹּל יִשְׁכַּח וְיָסִיר מִלִּבּוֹ כְּאִלּוּ לֹא הָיָה – חָזָק וְאַמִּיץ הוּא, וְהוּא קַל רַק לְמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת שֶׁאֵין בֵּינֵיהֶם הַמִּדּוֹת הַלָּלוּ, לֹא אֶל שׁוֹכְנֵי בָּתֵּי חֹמֶר אֲשֶׁר בֶּעָפָר יְסוֹדָם. אָמְנָם גְּזֵרַת מֶלֶךְ הִיא, וְהַמִּקְרָאוֹת גְּלוּיִים בָּאֵר הֵיטֵב, אֵינָם צְרִיכִים פֵּרוּשׁ, “לֹא תִשְֹנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבְךָ” (ויקרא יט). “לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ
Hatred and revenge are very difficult for the frail human heart to avoid, because a person feels his embarrassment very acutely and endures much pain from it. Taking revenge is sweeter than honey to him because it gives him peace (knowing that the other fellow received what he assuredly deserved). Therefore, to have the strength to overcome what his nature compels him do, and to forego his honor and not hate the person who wronged him and not take revenge when the opportunity to do so arises, and not harbor any resentment, and instead to forget the entire episode and remove it from the heart as if it never happened, such a person is very strong and powerful. Doing this is easy only for angels who lack human qualities, not for human beings who live in a physical body made from earth. But the verses in the Torah are very clear and explicit not needing deep interpretations. “Do not hate your brother in your heart.” “Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against the members of your nation.”
The Mesilat Yesharim’s words are much broader than merely borrowing a lawn mower or a wheelbarrow. They apply even to hurtful and embarrassing words that were said in public for others to hear. The vilified victim is commanded not to take revenge by responding with equally embarrassing words, and, if the person has regretted his actions, not to even harbor a grudge against him. Going forward, he must act towards that person as if nothing happened. How is one expected to fulfill this commandment? We are humans, not angels! So how can Hashem expect this kind of saintly conduct from us?
The answer to this question is found in the 12th century Sefer Hachinuch attributed to R’ Aharon Halevi. The Sefer Hachinuch counts and explains all of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot. In his explanation of Mitzvah 241 (Do not take revenge) the author writes:
מִשָּׁרְשֵׁי הַמִּצְוָה. שֶׁיֵּדַע הָאָדָם וְיִתֵּן אֶל לִבּוֹ כִּי כָל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרֵהוּ מִטּוֹב עַד רַע, הוּא סִבָּה שֶׁתָּבוֹא עָלָיו מֵאֵת הַשֵּׁם בָּרוּךְ הוּא. וּמִיַּד הָאָדָם מִיַּד אִישׁ אָחִיו לֹא יִהְיֶה דָבָר בִּלְתִּי רָצוֹן הַשֵּׁם בָּרוּךְ הוּא, עַל כֵּן כְּשֶׁיְּצַעֲרֵהוּ אוֹ יַכְאִיבֵהוּ אָדָם יֵדַע בְּנַפְשׁוֹ כִּי עֲוֹנוֹתָיו גָּרְמוּ, וְהַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ גָּזַר עָלָיו בְּכָךְ, וְלֹא יָשִׁית מַחְשְׁבוֹתָיו לִנְקֹם מִמֶּנּוּ, כִּי הוּא אֵינוֹ סִבַּת רָעָתוֹ, כִּי הֶעָוֹן הוּא הַמְּסַבֵּב,
At the root of this mitzvah is that a person should know and resolve in his heart that everything that happens to him, whether good or bad, comes to him directly from the Holy One, blessed be He. From the hand of his friend or his brother nothing can come forth except the will of Hashem. Therefore, when someone pains him, he should realize that his sins are his problem and that Hashem has decreed this upon him as atonement. Hence, he should not put his mind or thoughts into how to exact revenge from that person, for his friend is not the source of the problem, but rather his own sins are.
Here lies the secret. When we recognize that the perpetrator of the evil is but Hashem’s tool to punish us for our sins, we realize that there is no point in “killing the messenger” just because he delivered the bad news. So, if someone embarrassed me in public, my thoughts should be, “What did I do wrong that I am being punished with this embarrassment? I know, that if I did not deserve it, I would not be receiving it, so what do I need personally to rectify?” Instead of thinking, “That scoundrel! At my first opportunity, I will get him back!” we need to deal with the One who sent the messenger in the first place and figure out what it will take to stop Him from sending these hurtful messengers. Only by rectifying the true source of the problem, our sins, will we succeed in eliminating the evil messengers.
This perspective on life is the source of great peace both within a person and between him and others. When one knows that his only concern in life is his relationship with Hashem, and that from that relationship all else follows, he knows clearly how to lead his life. If he fulfills his obligations to Hashem, he has nothing to fear because no one can hurt him. This creates internal peace. He will also be at peace with others since he doesn’t fault them for any of their wrongdoings to him. Only if a person is deficient in his responsibilities does he have to worry about messengers with bad tidings or worse.
This raises a challenging question. If the one who embarrassed me in public is merely Hashem’s agent to punish me, does this mean that he is blameless and will receive no punishment for the wrong that he has done? He didn’t know that I had a punishment coming. He chose to embarrass me for his own reasons. And he knew full well that one is not allowed to embarrass someone else in public. Is he free of guilt and punishment?
Our Sages teach us that in spite of his being Hashem’s agent, he will still be punished for his poor choice. He chose to commit the crime for his own reasons, and, as such, he is guilty for doing it.
A very important concept in Judaism is:
מגלגלין זכות על ידי זכאי ומגלגלין חוב על ידי חייב
From Heaven, They bring forth good matters through meritorious people, and They bring forth bad matters through evil people.
When Hashem needs an agent to bring forth something good for a person or for His people, He chooses someone with merit, someone who does good all the time, as His agent. Since this person is always involved in doing good for others, he is the perfect candidate to perform yet another good deed for Hashem. Since he seeks to do good deeds, he is primed and ready to go.
On the other hand, when Hashem needs an agent to bring forth something bad, He chooses someone who doesn’t mind doing evil as His agent. Once again, since this person always does evil deeds, he is also ready to go when called upon.
In this regard, when Hashem needs to punish someone, He brings the victim in contact with an evil person who will not think twice about embarrassing him in public to deliver the punishment. Having chosen to be evil, the evil person is accountable all of his sins, including this one.
This lesson derives from the story of King David and Shimi ben Gara brought in the continuation of the Sefer Hachinuch cited above. King David’s response to Shimi ben Gera’s curse was,
וּכְמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר דָּוִד עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם (שמואל-ב טז יא) הַנִּיחוּ לוֹ וִיקַלֵּל כִּי אָמַר לוֹ יְיָ. תָּלָה הָעִנְיָן בְּחֶטְאוֹ וְלֹא בְשִׁמְעִי בֶן גֵרָא.
“Leave him to curse, for Hashem has told him to curse.” King David connected the curse to his own sins rather than to Shimi ben Gara.
The back story is that King David’s son Avshalom had rebelled against him in an attempt to become the king of Israel in his place. King David and his small army of men had left Jerusalem and were on the run, and Avshalom now occupied Jerusalem. When King David reached the city of Bachurim, he ran into Shimi ben Gara, a descendant of King Saul, who used the opportunity to severely curse King David. Among many other scathing and false accusations, he accused King David of killing King Saul and his sons (when they actually died in battle). Shimi also threw stones at King David and his party. Avishai ben Tzeruya, one of King David’s men, was incensed by Shimi’s insolence, and wanted to kill him as a rebel for treating the king so disrespectfully. King David responded to Avishai’s offer by saying that Hashem had told Shimi to curse. “I must be guilty of a sin, so I am being cursed.” In the following verses, King David explains to Avishai that Hashem brought him in contact with such a low-life knowing that he would have no qualms about cursing him, because he (David) obviously deserved a punishment.
At a later point Shimi came to King David repentant for his poor behavior, and pleaded with the King not to kill him. In a moment of mercy King David swore to him that he would not kill him.
Nevertheless, on his deathbed, King David commanded his son Shlomo to kill Shimi ben Gara as a rebel, not out of revenge, for the curse that he gave him (Kings 1:2:8,9). We see that King David held Shimi accountable for his curse, even though he said it was from Hashem.
The Sefer Hachinuch concludes with the following words.
וְעוֹד נִמְצָא בְמִצְוָה זוֹ תּוֹעֶלֶת רַבָּה לְהַשְׁבִּית רִיב וּלְהַעֲבִיר הַמַּשְֹטֵמוֹת מִלֵּב בְּנֵי אָדָם, וּבִהְיוֹת שָׁלוֹם בֵּין אֲנָשִׁים יַעֲשֶֹה הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ שָׁלוֹם לָהֶם
There is another great benefit from this mitzvah in that it prevents arguments and eliminates hatred from people’s hearts. When there is peace between people, Hashem will also bestow peace upon them.
From these mitzvot, we gain a greater appreciation for the benefit of having strong and deep belief in Hashem. When one understands that everything comes to him from Hashem, both good and bad, he has the tools to live a life of peace and tranquility. Peace within himself, and peace with others.