The Torah in Parashat Kedoshim (19:18) introduces the prohibitions of “lo tikom” and “lot titor” – taking revenge, and bearing a grudge. As Rashi and the Rambam (Hilkhot Dei’ot 7:7-8) explain, nekama (revenge) is wronging one’s fellow to avenge a wrong, whereas netira (a grudge) means reminding the person of the wrong he committed, even without exacting revenge.
In concluding his discussion of these prohibitions, the Rambam writes that eliminating from one’s heart the memory of a wrong committed against him facilitates “the settlement of the earth and people’s dealings with one another.” Forgiving offenses, rather than preserving their memory and remaining resentful, provides the practical benefit of helping to ensure peaceful relations among people. Chizkuni similarly writes in this commentary to this verse in Parashat Kedoshim that through the observance of these commands, “yavo shalom ba-olam” – “peace shall come to the earth.”
If we focus solely on these remarks of the Rambam and Chizkuni, we might end up concluding that revenge and bearing grudges are wrong only as a practical matter, because they result in destructive conflicts. Fundamentally, avenging or resenting an offense one suffered is just and understandable, but for the sake of maintaining law and order in society, it is forbidden.
In truth, however, this is not the case. Both the Rambam and Chizkuni, as well as others, explain that revenge and grudges are not merely discouraged due to practical concerns, but also fundamentally misguided reactions to adversity, for various reasons.
The Rambam, in discussing revenge (7:7), writes that a person should forgive, rather than continue to resent, wrongs committed against him “for they are all, among those who understand, matters of vanity and nonsense, which are not worth avenging.” The vast majority of wrongs which people “suffer,” the Rambam writes, are, in the grand scheme of things, trivial. Instead of allowing ourselves to be overcome by anger, and carry a heavy load of emotional baggage with us into the future, we are best advised to put the matter into perspective, to avoid blowing the grievance out of proportion, which will allow us to forgive and forget.
Chizkuni writes in explaining these commands, “The Almighty said: Let the love you have for him triumph over the resentment you feel towards him.” According to Chizkuni, revenge and grudges are wrong because the offenses one commits against his fellow should not erase the feelings of love that should exist between them. Even if one has a legitimate grievance against someone, there is still ample reason for him to respect and love that person. The Torah’s command to avoid revenge and grudges does not, according to Chizkuni, undermine the validity of our grievances, but rather urges us not to allow our legitimate grievances to overshadow the many reasons we have to continue respecting and loving those who have wronged us.
Sefer Ha-chinukh (247) offers a theological explanation for these prohibitions, explaining that they flow naturally from our belief in Providence. Once we acknowledge that nothing happens to us without God having willed it, our response to being victimized will focus less – or not at all – on the perpetrator, and more on introspection and repentance. Sefer Ha-chinukh cites as an example of this concept King David’s reaction to the curses and insults hurled at him by Shimi ben Geira as he was escaping from his son, Avshalom, who mounted an armed rebellion against him. David told his men to allow Shimi ben Geira to continue “because the Lord told him: Curse David” (Shemuel II 16:10). David truly believed that this humiliation – like all trials and hardships people endure – was decreed by God, and therefore there was no sense in reacting angrily. Sefer Ha-chinukh urges us to respond in this manner to all wrongs committed against us, and direct our attention inward, to meaningful self-improvement, rather than react with destructive rage and the ultimately futile pursuit of revenge.