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Revenge: It’s Not Worth It

Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

The Torah commands us not to take revenge or bear a grudge. There are a number of explanations for this Mitzva. We will focus on that of the Rambam: The Rambam writes that one should not take revenge or bear a grudge because this-worldly matters are not important enough to merit taking revenge or bearing a grudge.1 Thus, the reason for the Mitzva is that a person should be able to control his character traits because such matters are not worthy of being ascribed importance.

It is interesting to note that there are a few exceptions where it is permitted to take revenge. One is when a person carelessly kills his fellow, it is permitted for a relative of the victim to take revenge on the accidental murderer until he reaches the City of Refuge.2 Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, posits, based on the Rambam’s reasoning, that the death of a loved one is something that is worth getting upset about.

The other exception is that a Torah sage is allowed and even obligated to take revenge or bear a grudge when a person insults him in public because it is an insult to the honor of the Torah and that is also something worth taking revenge for.

It is interesting to note that the example of taking revenge and bearing a grudge given in the Gemara is in the realm of property. Indeed, many commentators hold that the prohibitions to take revenge or bear a grudge only apply in the monetary realm, as opposed to the personal realm. For example, they forbid not lending someone an item because he did not lend it, but they permit answering an insult with an insult. Some authorities do hold it applies in all realms, but regardless it is evident that the yetser hara (negative inclination) to take revenge with regard to money and property comes from an attachment to materialism that is inconsonant with Torah values. By having a Torah approach to materialism, a person will find it far easier to fulfil the words of the Rambam and realize that money and property are transient and insignificant.

The Steipler Gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, and his recently deceased son, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, among their numerous qualities, were totally divorced from materialism and money. The following story, told over by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, about his father, demonstrates their attitude to money.

The accepted custom is that nobody is called up for the Aliyah of the terrible curses in the Torah Portion of Ki Tavo because of the negative content, rather the person reading from the Torah receives the Aliyah because he is reading from the Torah anyway. One avreich (someone in full-time Torah learning) decided that there was no reason not to receive the Aliyah and proceeded to take that Aliyah. Not long after, he received news that a relative in America had died and left him a massive inheritance that he had to tend to. He travelled there and spent a great deal of time dealing with the inheritance. Ultimately, he became very wealthy and had to devote most of his time to his wealth. When the Steipler Gaon heard this story, he commented that he wondered if the avreich would receive a punishment for going against an accepted custom but he didn’t realize that it would be such a great punishment! In the Steipler’s eyes, the fact that he became wealthy was totally overshadowed by the fact that he could no longer learn.

A person hearing this story, may be a bit more conflicted in his reaction than the Steipler – he may feel it is a shame that the person stopped learning as much, but it is also a good thing that he was now wealthy, and he could surely do a lot of good with the money. But to the Steipler and his son, it was crystal clear that this was a terrible occurrence – money pails into insignificance in comparison with Torah learning. In this vein, throughout his life, Rabbi Chaim never accepted a paid position and when he did receive money for his books, he gave most of it away.

Needless to say, most of us are more involved in the physical world than these exalted Sages, but each person on his level, can learn that monetary issues are not worth getting upset about or taking too seriously.

  1. Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh, 206.
  2. Makkot, 12a.

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