We hear people speaking a great deal about “love your neighbor as yourself,” but not so much about the words which come before them. The full verse reads: “Do not take revenge, and do not bear a grudge against the children of your nation, and love your neighbor as yourself; I am G-d” [19:18].
These two prohibitions — against revenge and holding a grudge — don’t sound nearly as flowery and endearing as “love your neighbor.” But in addition, they truly challenge human nature.
The Talmud [Yoma 23a] explains what the Torah forbids us to do. Imagine Reuven asks Shimon for a hammer, and Shimon refuses to give up his prized tool. Yet the next day, Shimon asks Reuven to borrow his drill. If Reuven refuses to give his drill to Shimon because Shimon refused to give him a hammer, that’s taking revenge. And if Reuven does give his drill to Shimon, but says, “I’m not like you, who refused to lend something to me,” that’s bearing a grudge.
Think how difficult these are! How is it even possible for us not to think that way?
Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, gives us a parable, which he said came to him from another teacher. Imagine a person is searching for Reuven. Someone suggests that Reuven might be found at a nearby event. So he goes, looks around, and there’s no Reuven.
Would it even enter his mind, asks the Chofetz Chaim, to be upset at those at the event for being Shimon and Levi, rather than Reuven? Of course not! Clearly he has to go elsewhere to look for Reuven.
In reality, he says, our situation is no different. Everything comes to us from G-d, who gives us what we need. So if someone doesn’t lend us a hammer, that is not the person whom G-d wills should do us that favor. So why should we be upset? How could we refuse that same person a favor in the future, because G-d did not will that that person do a favor for us? Says the Chofetz Chaim, we have no complaints against that person at all.
Many times, people wrap themselves up in complaints, imagining they have a right to be upset. Today it seems to be in vogue to find reasons to be offended and hurt. Inevitably, those who falsely claim the title of “victim” end up hurting others.
This happened to me when I was studying in Jerusalem. At that time, the Dean of “Lakewood East” (BMG in Israel), Rabbi Yaakov Eliezer Schwartzman, told me something that had a profound impact. I think the last time I told this story was 16 years ago, so I imagine it’s safe to tell it again.
I was invited to a certain program, one that wasn’t quite up to the standards of the yeshiva (seminary). So I was encouraged not to participate, and I didn’t attend. But one of the attendees decided to not only point out to the organizers that I wasn’t there, but also to explain why I didn’t show up. It soon got back to me that they were upset with me for having skipped their program.
Somehow Rabbi Schwartzman got wind of this also, and he took me aside to discuss it.
At that time we were discussing financial laws about hiring workers, including hiring them through an agent. Imagine a business owner asks an agent to hire workers for him at a particular price for the day, but the agent tells the workers that they will get paid at a higher rate. At the end of the day, the owner pays only the price that he offered, of course. But the Talmud [Bava Metziah 76a] tells us that in a case where both rates were reasonable for the work done, a court cannot force the middleman to make up the difference. Although he misinformed the workers, he can claim that if they would have held out for higher-paying jobs, they would have ended up without work at all. So all the workers have against him are “complaints.”
Rabbi Schwartzman told me, you see from this that even complaints have to meet a certain standard. Not everyone gets to have complaints; there has to be a legitimate basis. If you do the right thing, and someone is upset at you for doing the right thing, that’s not your problem. Not everyone has the right to be offended.
We have an obligation to do the right thing. If someone does not do a favor for us, we have no right to complain. And on the other hand, if we do nothing wrong, people have no right to be offended. In order to continue to do the right thing ourselves, we need to know that not only do we have no right to bear a grudge against others, but that if people have a grudge against us for doing what is right for us, that is not our problem. In both cases, we cannot allow the actions of others to hold us back from spiritual growth!