Anger, its Purposes, and its Impacts

Do not take vengeance and do not bear a grudge.  You should love your neighbor as yourself.  I am Hashem.  (Sefer VaYikra 19:18)

Not taking vengeance or bearing a grudge

The above passage includes one of the most well-known commandments of the Torah.  We are adjured to love one another.  The passage also includes two negative commandments.  We are admonished to not take vengeance and to not bear a grudge.  What are the specific behaviors that are prohibited by these commandments?  How does taking vengeance differ from bearing a grudge?

Rashi addresses this issue.  He quotes the Sages who provide an example of each of these behaviors.  A person asks his neighbor to lend him a tool and the neighbor refuses.  Some time later this same neighbor needs a tool.  He approaches the person that he previously refused to assist and asks to borrow the tool he now needs.  The offended party refuses, reminding his neighbor that he had previously refused to provide assistance in an identical situation.  This is an example of taking vengeance.  What is bearing a grudge?  In this case the offended person lends the tool but points out to his neighbor that he is acting differently and better than he acted.  Rashi adds that in the case of bearing a grudge, the offended party does not act out his feelings toward his neighbor by withholding the tool.  He lends him the tool.  However, in his heart, he preserves his animosity toward his neighbor.[1],[2]


Passivism as a Torah value

It is easy to appreciate the wholesomeness of the values promoted by these prohibitions.  It is also common for people to engage in vengeful behavior and to bear grudges.  Furthermore, we sometimes engage in these behaviors for good cause.  We reason that we are communicating to our neighbor the impact of his behavior through demonstration.  We also may reason that we have a far greater obligation to help those who have provided us with assistance in a time of need.  If we deny one who denied us, we are merely acting justly.   If we provide assistance to this person, then it is an unearned kindness.

Furthermore, the passivism that is demonstrated by obeying these prohibitions is not consistent with the other commandments in the Torah.  Moshe was commanded to wage a war of vengeance against Midyan in response to that nation’s attempt to corrupt the morals and religious values of Bnai Yisrael.  We are commanded to destroy Amalek.  This is a war of vengeance in response to Amalek’s attack upon Bnai Yisrael.  Why is vengeance encouraged in some instances, even upheld as a virtue, and condemned in more mundane instances?

Discovering the answers to these questions requires a deeper understanding of the reason behind the prohibitions against vengeful behavior and bearing a grudge.  It is interesting that although their wholesomeness is obvious, the commentators offer various explanations for these prohibitions – too many to here discuss.  But let us consider a few opinions.


Do not hate your brother in your heart.  Correct your friend and do not incur guilt on his account.  (Sefer VaYikra 19:17)

Building a cohesive community

The above passage directly precedes the passage prohibiting vengeance and bearing a grudge.  Together, these two passages outline five mitzvot.

  1. One may not hate one’s neighbor.
  2. One must correct one’s neighbor.
  3. One may not take vengeance.
  4. One may not bear a grudge.
  5. One must love one’s neighbor.

According to Ramban – Nachmanides, these five commandments are related to one another and describe the basic social relationship between members of the Jewish nation.  Ramban explains the relationship between these commandments.  We may not hate one another.  If a person feels that another has wronged him, then he is obligated to confront the offender and challenge his behavior.  Regardless of whether one has confronted the wrongdoer, one may not seek vengeance or bear a grudge.  Instead, he must seek the well-being of his neighbor as he seeks his own.[3]  In other words, Ramban understands these commandments as describing a community of mutually supportive and caring members.

Ramban’s comments are helpful but they do not respond to our questions.  It is important to correct those who have wronged us.  Why should we not demonstrate to them the harm they have caused by subjecting them to their own behavior or at least remarking to them when they seek our assistance and it is provided on the superiority of our response over theirs?  Ramban’s assertion that we must nurture cohesiveness within society is reasonable.  However, his contention that this is best accomplished through refraining from vengeance and bearing a grudge is not self-evidently valid.  Maybe, an occasional, instructive act of vengeance also furthers the goal of community building.


The genesis of baseless hatred

Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra shares Ramban’s view and adds a few important comments.  He explains that observance of these commandments will secure the nation’s continued possession of the Land of Israel.  He then notes that the second Bait HaMikdash – Sacred Temple – was destroyed because of baseless hatred within the Jewish community.[4]  This comment that the destruction of the second Temple was brought about through baseless hatred seems completely irrelevant.  The vengeance and grudge-bearing that the Torah is prohibiting is not the product of baseless hatred.  It is an educational, instructional response to one who has refused to help his neighbor.  This vengeance and grudge-bearing has nothing to do with baseless hatred.

It seems that Ibn Ezra does not distinguish between acts of vengeance and grudge-bearing that can be justified and those engendered by baseless hatred.  There are a number of excellent reasons for dismissing such a distinction.  One is that it is not a very practical distinction.  A person can easily rationalize an act of vengeance engendered by visceral hatred as being well-intentioned.  Furthermore, even if the vengeance is sincerely intended as an instructional measure, it is far from certain that the recipient will appreciate this intention.  Instead, the well-intentioned vengeance will be interpreted as an act of hatred and lead to further deterioration of the relationship between the parties.  In other words, vengeance – even when well-intentioned – is likely to promote strife and lead to baseless hatred.  Ibn Ezra’s view can be expressed in another way. It is far more practical to overcome a neighbor’s callousness by modeling the proper behavior – without stating a judgement – than by returning the same behavior.


The unity of the Jewish people

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin – Netziv – also embraces Ramban’s approach to understanding these commandments.  However, he suggests that these mitzvot have an importance other than their impact upon society.  He focuses upon their impact upon the individual’s perception of oneself within the community.  He explains that all members of the Jewish nation are parts of a single body.  Harm that occurs to one of us occurs to us all.  When I harm another Jew, I do harm to myself.[5]  Let us consider this comment more carefully.  Imagine a person who has a finger or a limb that bears a blemish of some sort.  Would this person consider giving up the finger in order to remove the blemish?  Certainly, one would endure the unpleasantness of the blemish and preserve the finger or limb.  All Jews are parts of a single body.  When we act against another Jew, we are severing one of our own limbs.

This response does not directly address the issue of why well-intentioned, instructional vengeance or grudge-bearing is prohibited.  However, we can anticipate Netziv’s response to this question.  These mitzvot are primarily intended to instill within us an appreciation of our connectedness with other Jews.  This lesson is most effectively communicated by demanding that we overlook perceived wrongs and refrain from engaging in vengeance and in bearing grudges.

In short, according to Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and Netziv, these mitzvot are intended to create a sense of community within the nation.  They are not an endorsement of passivism in response to evil.  However, they express the high priority given to nurturing community.  Nonetheless, when confronted with physical or spiritual annihilation, we must respond with vigor and even vengeance may be appropriate.


Recognizing self-afflicted harm

One of the most intriguing interpretations of the prohibitions against taking vengeance and bearing a grudge is provided by Sefer HaChinuch.   He suggests that we must recognize that all that occurs to us is in the hands of Hashem.  If another person succeeds in harming us, then we know that we did not deserve Hashem’s protection.  If our objective is to preserve ourselves and protect ourselves from harm, then we are best served by improving ourselves.  If our program of self-improvement earns Hashem’s more intense providence over our affairs, we will achieve far more than an act of vengeance can secure.[6]

This interpretation seems odd and inconsistent with the Torah’s overall philosophy.  Human-beings are endowed with freewill.  When a person does evil, one engages in a volitional behavior and is responsible for the outcome.  It is true that there is an element of Divine acquiescence to the evil inflicted but this does not excuse the behavior of the wrongdoer.  Rambam – Maimonides – points out that Hashem foretold to Avraham that his descendants would be oppressed in a foreign land.  This destiny did not excuse the Egyptians’ malevolence.[7]  Sefer HaChinuch seems to be dismissing Rambam’s compelling argument. He suggests that one disregard the wrongful behavior one has experienced and instead, attribute one’s suffering to personal imperfection.  It seems more reasonable to argue that I am imperfect, but that did not give another person the right to harm me.  Nor does Hashem’s passive stance toward me moderate the culpability of the person who has wronged me.


Deflecting introspection by blaming others

It is unlikely that Sefer HaChinuch disputes the view developed by Rambam or intends to excuse wrongdoers.  He is suggesting that the prohibitions against vengeance and bearing a grudge are designed to encourage us to focus on that which is most important.  An example will make this clearer.  A person promulgates a false tale about me.  I decide that I cannot accept this behavior and pay back my enemy by sharing with others some embarrassing information that I have about my adversary.  Let’s consider my perspective as revealed through my behavior.  I believe that my problem is that I have a dangerous enemy.  I need to neutralize him and if I can accomplish this then I will secure my safety.  Sefer HaChinuch is suggesting that my approach to the situation is a convenient deflection of my attention from the more fundamental problem.  He is not suggesting that my assessment of my adversary is flawed.  He is suggesting that seeking vengeance and bearing a grudge are avoidant behaviors.  They are behaviors that one adopts in order to avoid the more painful processes of introspection and self-assessment.[8]


Virtues are learned, not legislated

There is a practical and fundamental difference between the approaches to understanding these commandments.  Ibn Ezra understands the prohibitions against vengeance and bearing a grudge as practical measures required to foster cohesion within a community.  These laws dictate and prohibit behaviors.  They are not designed to communicate an educational message.  They establish parameters of behavior that are essential for a healthy community.

Netziv and Sefer HaChinuch understand these commandments as educational.  Netziv understands these commandments as a means of teaching us our interrelatedness.  Sefer HaChinuch suggests that these commandments are intended to encourage introspection and self-assessment.

The overall lesson that emerges from this discussion is that all of these commentators are presenting valid views.  We require commandments that enforce values and create a foundation of social cohesion.   We also need mitzvot that promote education and personal growth.  In other words, virtues are not established simply by dictate.  We must sometimes reconsider our perspectives and be willing to look at ourselves critically.

This dispute reminds us that the Torah includes various types of commandments. Some commandments establish parameters for civil behavior.  They regulate our personal and commercial interactions and create a functional society.  However, virtue cannot be legislated.  It must be learned and it can only be integrated into one’s personality and behaviors through critical self-assessment.

The Torah is designed to nurture the development of personal virtue.  It includes commandments designed to teach ideas and values.  It also includes commandments that encourage critical self-assessment.  However, these commandments can only give expression to ideas and values.  They can only encourage critical self-analysis.  We must make the choice to listen to and absorb their messages and to engage in introspection.


[1] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Vayikra 19:18.

[2] Rashi’s comments are confusing.  He explains that bearing a grudge is violated because the person preserves his animosity for his neighbor in his heart.  This would suggest that if the offended person lent the tool to his neighbor, without comment, but retained in his heart his animosity, then he would violate this prohibition.  However, Rashi’s example suggests that without the condescending declaration, the prohibition is not violated.  Rambam, adopts this second view.  Without the statement the prohibition is not violated.  (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deyot 7:8.) Korban Aharon, commenting on Rashi’s source from Torat Kohanim, explains that the prohibition is not violated by merely harboring the animosity; the animosity must be communicated to the neighbor.  Therefore, if the offended party, lends the implement without any expression of condescension, then the prohibition is not violated.

[3] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 19:17-18.

[4] Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra  19:17.

[5] Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Haamek Davar on Sefer VaYikra 19:18.

[6] Rabbeinu Aharon HaLevi, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 441.

[7] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 6:5.

[8] According to Sefer HaChinuch’s approach, it is more difficult to explain the wars of vengeance demanded by the Torah.  Both Midyan’s success in corrupting Bnai Yisrael and Amalek’s attack were associated with failings within the Bnai Yisrael.  Yet, the wars of vengeance are not treated as distractions from acknowledgment of our own national deficiencies.