January 18, 2021   ✦   5 Sh'vat, 5781   ✦   Torah Portion: Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16   ✦   Haftorah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld | Series: | Level:

So too anyone who bears a grudge against any Jew transgresses a negative prohibition, as it is stated, ‘And you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your nation’ (Leviticus 19:18). How is this? Reuben said to Simeon, ‘Rent me this house’ or ‘Lend me this ox,’ and Simeon refused. Some time later, Simeon needed Reuben to borrow or rent from him. Reuben says to him, ‘Here it is; behold I am lending to you, and I am not as you and I won’t pay you back as your deeds.’ One who acts like this transgresses ‘you shall not bear a grudge.’

Rather, [a person] should blot the matter from his heart and not preserve it. For so long as he keeps it in mind and remembers it he may come to vengeance. Therefore, the Torah was particular regarding bearing a grudge that one blot the sin out of his heart entirely and not remember it. This is a proper character trait (‘dai’ah’), through which it will be possible to preserve society (lit., ‘the dwelling of the land’) and the interaction of mankind one with the other.

Last week the Rambam discussed the prohibition of taking revenge on one’s fellow. This week, he moves on to a closely related topic, mentioned in the same verse of the Torah: bearing a grudge.

Although this prohibition appears to relate primarily to one’s thoughts, the Rambam (based on Talmud Yoma 23a) illustrates bearing a grudge in terms of acting upon one’s resentment — here by giving your well-rehearsed lecture to your fellow about how you’re not like him etc. Thus, presumably, just hating your fellow in your heart is not forbidden, only doing something on account of it. And as opposed to revenge in which you actively strike back at your fellow, bearing a grudge is not avenging him directly but making it clear to him that your hatred is still there (this being your golden opportunity to really stick it to him).

This, however, does not seem entirely correct either. The Rambam here continues, “Therefore, the Torah was particular regarding bearing a grudge that one blot the sin out of his heart entirely and not remember it.” Likewise, last week when the Rambam described the evil of revenge — which does involves doing an action — he added, “Rather, it is proper for a person to be easygoing regarding all matters of the world.” And similarly there: “Rather, when [his fellow] comes to him to borrow, he should give wholeheartedly.”

Based on this, it is clear that the Torah has in mind our emotions. When it forbade avenging or bearing a grudge, the meaning — ideally — is that we not even care about it or bear resentment in our hearts (this being only for transient matters which caused no financial harm, as we discussed last week). Yet at the same time, technically, the Torah only forbade acting upon our resentment, doing an act which indicates to our fellow our hurt is still there.

And this makes for a very central point in Jewish thought. With very few exceptions, the Torah commands us on the level of action alone. We are very rarely commanded in how we must feel on the inside. As we discussed in past classes (see 6:5), when the Torah forbade hating our fellow (Leviticus 19:17), according to the Rambam the meaning was not that we do not hate, but that we do not hate and bottle it up, leaving animosities to fester and grow. Likewise, the famous dictum “Love your fellow as yourself” (ibid., v. 18), primarily refers to how we must act towards our fellow, not what we must feel in our hearts (see 6:3). And finally, yet another “touchy-feely” one — “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:14, the final of the Ten Commandments) — according to the Sages refers specifically to acting on our desires — such as intimidating a person into selling us what we covet.

Thus, even some of the most emotion-laden commandments of the Torah, which clearly relate to man’s basic feelings, technically command us on the level of action alone. And the reason for this is quite simple. G-d cannot “command” us how we must feel. If we hate someone, how do we just change our emotions? Or how do we just “turn on” loving our fellow if we hardly know him from Adam — or say he just rubs us the wrong way? Regarding this week’s commandment, bearing a grudge, the Rambam told us not even to remember what our fellow did. Can we control our memory? Thus, the Torah — apart from every other superlative we might attribute to it — is an enormously practical book, commanding only on the level of action: Treat your fellow as if you love him, do not act on your hatreds or jealousies, do not actively show your fellow your resentment is still there. For hopefully by acting a certain way, it will eventually penetrate your innards.

And this is not just a reasonable workaround. In truth, the best means of effecting our emotions is by improving our actions. We can spend all day contemplating the importance of loving our neighbor, but practically it means nothing until we actually have to live with and get along with them. (How many unmarried (or many-times divorced) marriage counselors can you name?) And this is not at all unlike learning any other life skill. You can study “how to swim” only so much. Sooner or later you just have to jump in and really learn it. And likewise, we all know the enormous difference between learning professional skills in school and actually putting them to use in the workplace. You don’t really know a subject until you’ve used it.

All of this introduces a fascinating idea. We are taught by the Torah to act a certain way even if our emotions are not there in the hope that they will eventually follow. But let’s say our emotions have not followed — at least yet. Say on the inside a person seethes with hatreds, jealousies and lusts, yet on the outside he appears an entirely upstanding, law-abiding individual. He fantasizes about all sorts of awful, perverted behavior within yet his thoughts never lead him to action. Who is such a person really? Is he his forced behavior without, or is he truly his drives and emotions within? Is G-d going to reward such a person as His faithful servant if G-d knows full well that his behavior is all an act and not an expression of whom the person truly is?

Or alternatively, a person may feel — quite correctly in fact — that his soul within is entirely sublime and pure. He aspires to the highest standards of behavior. He feels enormously close to and bound to his Creator. Just at times, his body has not the strength to live up to his convictions. Who is the real person?

We tend to think that we are our feelings underneath. We really are our inner selves — the set of values, feelings and emotions which constitute our souls. The fact that our behavior does not always add up is a unintentional deviation, an anomaly. But is this true? Are we whom we strive to be (or fantasize being), or are we our sometimes forced, sometimes reluctant behavior?

There are two factors to consider here, based in part on the writings of R. Chaim Volozhiner (1749-1821, primary student of the Vina Gaon and one of the leaders of Lithuanian Jewry) in his classic work Nefesh HaChaim. In considering which aspect of us is more primary, our thoughts or our actions, there are two distinct considerations. On the one hand, our actions are much more concrete and tangible. They produce a far greater impact — on ourselves and the world about. Our actions constitute the sum total of who we and what we have achieved in this world.

At the same time, our actions are more external to us. They are much less a reflection of whom we truly are. As we all know, we often do actions where our souls are not really there. We — our inner selves — truly did not want to act that way, but we could not control our bodies (or our mouths). Our actions thus do more, but stem from a lower part of our beings.

Our thoughts, on the other hand, are much more subtle and slight — doing far less damage to the world about, yet they are much more internal to us. They stem from a much higher and loftier part of our souls. If I spend time fantasizing about evil behavior, I have not done anything, yet to use the Nefesh HaChaim’s metaphor (I:4), I have brought an idolatry straight into the Holy of Holies. Such thoughts cut very deep, into the inner recesses of my soul. They do less, but strike much harder. And corruption in the uppermost chambers of my soul will most certainly have devastating ramifications throughout the rest of my being.

(Needless to say, in this we are not talking about thoughts and desires which involuntarily pop into our minds. We are all human. The concern regards thoughts we consciously choose to dwell upon.)

In this light, the Talmud states, “The fantasizing about a sin is more serious than the sin [itself]” (Yoma 29a). A sin is terrible, but at times it was the weakness of the flesh which drew a reluctant soul after it. But thinking, fantasizing, anticipating, and reminiscing over a sin: such can destroy the soul far more than a person’s momentary lack of self-control.

There is much more to say on this topic. G-d willing next week we will see that in this very simple distinction lies the key to understanding G-d’s relationship with man both in this world and in the Next. Stay tuned! 🙂

Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org