By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

Even the great sages of Israel recognize the legitimacy of having thoughts of revenge, but they also teach us how to deal with them. 

“You shall not seek revenge, nor bear any grudge.” (Leviticus 19:18)

We’ve all been there. We feel it when somebody does something really mean to us. We feel it after being bullied. We feel it if we’ve been the victim of some kind of theft or damage. We feel it when someone cuts in line in front of us in the supermarket.

It’s that feeling of revenge. We want to get ’em back! Revenge is defined as the action of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong suffered at their hand, or done to someone else.

Make no mistake. Although revenge is certainly vindictive, and almost always sinful, it is natural. It is a natural thought, and it is a natural feeling. Even the great sages of Israel recognize the legitimacy of having thoughts of revenge, but they also teach us how to deal with them. Indeed, no one should be embarrassed about a desire to sin. It’s natural! God gives us these “tests” in order for us to overcome these desires and become better people in the eyes of both God and man!

To Overcome Revenge is a Heroic Accomplishment

For example, Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1310) says that revenge is an emotion that “attacks the evil inclination” and forces man to give into it. Judaism teaches that all people have two inclinations: a yetzer tov (the “good inclination”) and a yetzer hara (the “evil inclination”). While most emotions feed on our yetzer tov, such as love, kindness, mercy and giving, a number of emotions feed on our yetzer hara, and revenge is certainly one of them. In fact, any emotion that is mixed with anger will always have a yetzer hara component to it.

The Mesilat Yesharim, a classical Jewish work on ethical behavior, describes how difficult the sentiment of revenge is to overcome: “A person cannot escape these feelings, as they cause him or her great pain, and the feeling of payback or revenge is indeed so sweet. Thus, resisting the urge to act upon this feeling is indeed difficult, and it is only easy for angels to ignore this emotion.”

Hence, when we overcome our feelings of revenge – we’ve essentially accomplished what only angels are supposedly capable of accomplishing! Give yourself a pat-on-the-back!

The Chinuch, a 16th-century anonymous work on Jewish law, states that revenge is such a powerful emotion that most people harbor a lifelong craving for it! The yetzer works overtime to ensure this craving is never satiated until the person who wronged us is paid back with evil or injury. Yup, sounds very “yetzer hara” related to me! Don’t give in!

Finally, maybe, just maybe, when something bad happens to us at the hands of another –not to justify the action—it was “meant to be.” As the Chinuch adds in a philosophical comment on revenge: “One of the roots of the [Torah’s commandment against taking revenge] is that a person should know in his heart that all that happens to him, whether good or bad, is because it is God’s will that it happen to him… It was God who wished this to happen, and one should not consider taking revenge on the other person, because the other person is not the reason for what happened.”

That is certainly something to think about. Meanwhile, remember that revenge is a natural and reccurring opportunity to defeat your yetzer hara!