The shameful murder of 15-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir has shocked Israeli society to the core, and authorities have vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. This attitude towards the vile crime is also in accordance with Torah law.
For those unfamiliar, there is a story in the Book of Genesis in which the brothers of Joseph decide to kill him, primarily out of jealously, as he was their father’s favorite son. Due to various considerations, however, they decided not to commit the act of murder and instead to throw him into a pit and let the snakes and scorpions do the job. However, Joseph is saved, and to make a long story short, he becomes the ruler of Egypt, saving the residents of the region from a famine that had ravished the area. Joseph and his brothers eventually reconciled “and lived happily ever after” – or so it seemed.
At the end of the Book of Genesis, the Torah describes how Joseph’s brothers again ask him to forgive them for their attempted murder and other schemes they had pulled on him. However, was it not obvious that Joseph had forgiven them? The Torah tells us (Leviticus 19:18), “You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge.”
Let us examine the Torah’s commandant of “not taking revenge” and “not bearing a grudge.”
Indeed, they are two distinct prohibitions. As the Talmud explains (Yoma 23a):
It has been taught: What is “revenge” and what is “bearing a grudge?”
If one said to his fellow: “Lend me your sickle,” and he replied, “No,” and tomorrow the second fellow comes to the first fellow and says: “Lend me your ax,” and he replies: “I will not lend it to you, just as you would not lend me your sickle!” That is revenge.
And what is bearing a grudge? If one says to his fellow: “Lend me your ax,” and he replies “No,” and the next day the second asks: “Lend me your garment,” and he answers: “Here it is, for I am not like you who would not lend me what I asked for!” That is bearing a grudge.
The Torah and the Talmud clearly forbid taking revenge! Even the tiniest revenge of not lending your neighbor an axe!
Allow me to share another example in Jewish law that forbids taking revenge – even in the heat of the moment. The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law CM 421:13) discusses a case of two people beating each other up. The ruling there is that if they “both started it,” each is responsible for paying the damages caused to the other, such as breaking glasses, smashing a cell phone and the like. It is also explained that if one of them started the fight, the other certainly has the right to protect himself with reasonable counter force.
Acting in the Heat of the Moment is Not an Excuse!
But what about a case in which a person received an undeserved blow from someone and there is no indication that he was about to receive another one. The bully just walked away. The whole thing is over. Yet, understandably, the recipient is fuming mad and in the heat of the moment wants to punch the guy back. And he does. Is he responsible for damages he may have caused?
Rabbi David HaLevi Segal, also known as the Taz (after a book he had written), a famous 17th-century authority on Jewish law, answers that since revenge and retaliation are always prohibited, especially in a case in which the event/fight is essentially over, punching back is forbidden according to Jewish law. The fact that the victim was “in the heat of the moment” and could not control himself is not grounds for absolving him of responsibility for his actions. Only the damages incurred in immediate self-defense are justified, the Taz explains, and not those that result from violence committed after the threat had passed.
How much more so is it forbidden to take the life of an innocent bystander days after another murder had occurred!
These are only a sampling of scenarios to demonstrate clearly that the Torah absolutely forbids taking revenge and even bearing a grudge! Maimonides, one the greatest authorities of Jewish law of all time, tells us that we are to “eradicate the thought of revenge from one’s heart and not bear a grudge—for as long as one harbors a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance (Hilchot De’ot 7:8).” In fact, Maimonides virtually equates the sin of bearing a grudge with the act of revenge!
Here at United with Israel, we are completely devastated by the news that Jews may have been responsible for the brutal murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, reportedly in revenge for the murder last month of three kidnapped Jewish boys. As an orthodox rabbi, I can authoritatively and unequivocally state that no authority on Jewish law would condone or even entertain such action. We encourage the police and law enforcement authorities to punish the perpetrators of this crime to the fullest extent of the law. Indeed, besides the Torah laws against revenge and murder, there is also a requirement to observe the laws of the land in which one lives – and murder is forbidden!
Joseph did not bear a grudge nor take revenge on his oppressors. Neither should we.