Sweet Revenge

BT Yoma 22b-23a


We all know people who hold grudges so long that they can’t even remember what they were angry about in the first place. The words no longer matter. The negative emotional associations they have with the person who offended are so overwhelming and insulting that the feelings linger. Try as we might, we have difficulty unseating these feelings. And perhaps this makes us feel bad because we know that the Torah forbids any form of revenge or bearing grudges, as we read in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take revenge nor bear any grudge.”

But then we read the statement above and it makes us wonder. How is it that a Torah scholar who is insulted should actually bear a grudge, and not only a little grudge, a grudge of snake-like proportions? No doubt, this sort of venomous anger will not go away. In fact, this person loses his scholarly credibility if he does not bear a grudge. It makes no sense.

The Talmud, being a document of dissent and debate, asks this question and raises the Leviticus verse. The last person we would expect to bear a grudge is the one who studies the stuff in the original. The Talmud then discusses the prohibition of revenge and says that the Leviticus text is specifically about monetary revenge rather than personal insult. “What is revenge? One said to his fellow: ‘Lend me your sickle,’ and he said, ‘No.’ The next day, he (the one who refused) said to the other, ‘Lend me your ax.’ And he said, ‘I will not lend to you just as you did not lend to me.’ That is revenge.”

What then is bearing a grudge? That’s the Talmud’s next question: “If one said to his fellow, ‘Lend me your ax,’ and he said, ‘No,’ and the next day he (the one who refused), said to him, ‘I am not like you, who would not lend to me. That is bearing a grudge.’”

In the first instance – revenge – monetary stinginess is, in many ways, an act of personal insult. I am saying that I do not trust you with my things, and you, in turn, are telling me that a deficiency of trust will come back to bite me. It is a zero-sum game, this game of revenge.

In the second instance, bearing a grudge seems to be an act of moral superiority. You give me something not to help me but to show that you are better than me, a bigger, more generous person. But in truth, you are not a generous person because you could not give me something without hurting me at the same time.

The Talmud distinguishes between monetary insult and personal insult in this way: in a case of finance, you can control how you spend your money or share your possessions and make choices. We hope you will make choices that engender trust and parity but if you cannot, at least be gracious to those who cannot. But the Torah scholar is not representing himself alone. The Torah scholar represents a universe of ideas and values that is being insulted and must protect that universe with ferocity. The scholar must uphold the honor of the Torah, its students and its institutions. The shame that a scholar experiences is the shame we all bear. For example, one may not support a particular president, but one should not call a  president by his first name or last name without reference to his office. It protects the honor of the office even if the candidate in question does not represent one’s politics.

In the chapter “Who Gets Hurts?” in William Irvine’s book about insults, A Slap in the Face, he writes that when we have self-confidence, we regard ourselves as being worthy. We feel proud of ourselves and “wealthy enough in self-esteem that we can afford to let others have fun at our expense.” This is not permission to insult us, but a possible explanation of why some people nurse old wounds for a lifetime, and others let them slide. Perhaps in this piece of Talmud, there was a worry not only about the status of scholars in society but also a need to help them de-personalize an insult and understand when it was directed to the enterprise of study and not to them as individuals.

Learning should never be diminished and insulted if we prize it as foundational to our Jewish identity. And we must protect the dignity of those who represent it.


Shabbat Shalom