18-5770 Mitzvah N-80
March 22, 2010
Negative Mitzvah 80 – This is a negative commandment: Do not take revenge on one’s fellow-man
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “you shall not take vengeance” (Lev. 19:18). Revenge means repaying a person who has harmed someone, according to his own act: for example, if one asked his neighbor, “Lend me your axe,” and he would not lend it to him; and the next day his neighbor has to borrow something from him, whereupon he tells him, “I will not lend it to you, just as you refused me when I wanted to borrow from you.” This is revenge, whereby he exacts vengeance from the other, repaying him according to his own evil action.
This applies everywhere and always, for both men and women.
Compare the example of the Hafetz Hayim to this Midrash from the Talmud (Shabbat 82a): Once a man from Galilee hired himself for three years to a man in the south. On the afternoon before Yom Kippur he said, “Give me my hire; I will go and nourish my wife and children.” His boss said, “I have no money”. The hired man said, “Then give me produce.” And the boss said, “I have none.” “Give me land.” And the boss said, “I have none.” “Give me cattle” And the boss said, “I have none.” “Give me mattresses and coverlets” And the boss said, “I have none.” Then the hired man put his possessions on his back and left in despair. After the fast, the boss took the man’s wages and three donkeys laden with food, drink and all manner of delicacies, and went to the hired man’s home. After they had eaten and drunk, and he had given him his wages, he said to the man, “ when you asked me for your wages, and I said I had no money, in what suspicion did you hold me?” The man replied, “I thought you had bought goods cheaply, and had so used up your money.” “And about the cattle?” “I thought perhaps you had hired them all out.” “And about the land?” “I thought that you had rented it all out.” “And the produce?” “ I thought that it had not yet been tithed. “And the mattresses and coverlets?” “I thought that perhaps you had consecrated all your property to God.” Then the boss said, “And so it was. I had vowed away all my property, because my son does not occupy himself with the study of the Law. But I went to my colleagues, and they freed me from my vow. As you have judged me favorably, so may God judge you.”
It is one thing to judge a person favorably. Even when things do not go as well as we want them to, we have a choice. We can believe that the whole thing is a plot against us and the other person is a scoundrel, or we can judge that person favorably and assume that there is some perfectly valid reason for his actions. In the case of our Mitzvah, perhaps there is a reason that the man cannot lend out the ax. I am sure that we can think of many good reasons he might want to lend the ax but can’t do it right now. Perhaps he has already rented it to someone else. Perhaps it is broken and in need of repair. Perhaps it is collateral on a loan and he cannot let it out of his possession. We could think of many other reasons that the person may not be able to lend out the ax right now.
Now we can understand why this kind of revenge is not permitted. When the tables are turned and the neighbor comes looking to borrow a different tool, our angry man gives a reason why he will not lend it to his neighbor. There is no assumption that there might be a reason that the tool cannot be borrowed; he has given his reason; that he is angry over the incident of the ax the previous day and is punishing the neighbor in a measure for measure manner that may be uncalled for. This is how a feud between neighbors begins, all over the need for revenge over a slight that may or may not be warranted.
The entire issue is contained entirely in our mind. We can be angry over the refusal of the ax and carry it with us, determined to get even some day in the future, or we can judge our neighbor favorably, assuming that there must be a reason he can’t lend the ax today, and let the incident go, so as not to carry the anger forward. I can add that even if we know that the neighbor is stingy and never will lend a tool, we should still not seek revenge; we should lend out our own tools if asked, so as to teach that person, the right way to act as a neighbor. We have to do this with our actions and without any malice, since if we say, “I will do for you what you refused to do for me” we will be in violation of the next Mitzvah.