The Torah commands us in Sefer Vayikra (19:18), “Do not take revenge from or bear a grudge against the people of your nation.” Rashi there explains the difference between these two terms – “nekama” and “netira” – through an example of someone who refuses to lend his sickle to his fellow. On the following day, that same person – who refused to lend the sickle – asks that other person to borrow his axe. If the latter refuses to lend him his axe because of his refusal to lend him the sickle the previous day, this constitutes “nekama” – revenge. If, however, he agrees to lend the axe but remarks, “I am not like you, who would not lend to me,” this constitutes “netira” – bearing a grudge. And the Sefer Hachinuch explains that the prohibition of “netira” refers not to negative speech, but rather to harbouring ill feelings in one’s heart, as Rashi there comments, “that he keeps the animosity in his heart, even if he does not avenge.”
The question arises, how can the Torah command a person to forget something, to just forget what somebody else did to him? It’s one thing when the Torah commands us to remember something, such as Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt). It may be difficult, but it’s possible. But how can we be forced to forget something? In fact, the harder a person tries to forget it, the more it becomes embedded in his memory!
Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, rabbi of Jerusalem’s OldCity, presents the following explanation to answer these questions. He writes that “do not bear a grudge” does not mean “do not remember.” A person is permitted to remember the injustices committed against him. This commandment means that one must not remember them in a negative light, that is, one should not think to himself, “He did this to me wrongfully.”
The clearest example of the fulfillment of this mitzvah – “Do not take revenge from or bear a grudge against the people of your nation” – appears in our parasha, in Yosef’s treatment of his brothers who caused him so much pain and grief. First, they plotted to kill him, and then they cast him into a pit containing snakes and scorpions in the hope that he would die there, and finally they sold him as a slave, which ultimately led to his imprisonment in an Egyptian dungeon. Did Yosef forget all this during the interim years? Clearly not. In fact, his very first words to them when he revealed his identity are, “I am your brother Yosef, whom you sold to Egypt” (Bereishit 45:4). He makes no attempt at all to overlook their wrongdoing, and he actually refers to it right at the outset. And Chazal inform us that when Yosef and his brothers went to bury Yaakov in Me’arat Ha’machpela, Yosef stopped along the way at the pit near Shechem into which he was thrown in order to recite the beracha, “Baruch she’asa li nes ba’makom ha’zeh” (“Blessed is He who performed a miracle for me at this place”). Clearly, then, Yosef did not forget being cast into the pit by his brothers. Indeed, his brothers were very concerned by this memory, and thus thought to themselves after Yaakov’s death, “Perhaps Yosef will despise us and will surely repay us for all the evil we caused him.” They fear that now that their father has passed on, Yosef will seek revenge for their mistreatment of him.
But Yosef has no plans of revenge. And he explains to them exactly why: “It is not you who sent me here, but rather God” (Bereishit 45:8). As if to say, nothing of what happened to me has any connection to you. True, you did all this to me, but this was God’s decision, not yours. The Almighty wanted for me to be sold to Egyptand to first be in a pit. Therefore, while I have not forgotten all that you did to me, I also cannot be angry with you, for you did not do this to me; it was Hashem.
This does not mean, of course, that a person who commits a wrongful act bears no responsibility for what he did, and can cast all the blame on Hashem. From our perspective, it is forbidden for us to act wrongfully, and we bear full responsibility for both our positive and negative conduct. But from the perspective of the one who feels the need to avenge a wrongful act committed against him, he must remember that the Almighty caused this to happen, and not the person himself. There is thus no point in exacting revenge from the perpetrator. Similarly, Yosef Ha’tzadik, in his great piety, tells his brothers that he has no intention of avenging their mistreatment of him, and he reminds them that in the end, it was all for the best: “You intended me harm, but God intended it for good” (Bereishit 50:20). In effect, Yosef says, “Not only are you not the ones against whom to take revenge, but there is nothing at all to take revenge for! For after all, Hashem works everything out for the best, and if He caused this to happen, then it must have been for the best.” Yosef adds yet another reason why he cannot take revenge against them. As we mentioned earlier, the first words Yosef tells them when he reveals his identity, are, “I am your brother Yosef.” The word “ach” (brother) relates to the word “echad” – one. Yosef here tells his brothers that they are all part of a single entity. Taking revenge against them, or harbouring ill feelings towards them, would be essentially taking revenge against, or feeling negatively towards, himself.
At times, we try judging people favourably but cannot truly find a basis for justification. The “Tomer Devora” gives us a beautiful insight into one of God’s qualities from which we are to learn. The final of the thirteen attributes of mercy found in the concluding verses of Sefer Micha is that of “mimei kedem” (literally, “from days of old”). This means that at times, a person has no merit for the Almighty to take into account when judging him. But Hashem nevertheless invokes one merit on his behalf – that he was once an infant without any sins for which he is held accountable. “From days of old” refers to the merits accrued in his infancy. Similarly, we, too, must try to find the merits of others, even “from days of old,” even if right now we cannot point to any merits on account of which we can judge him favourably.
With Hashem’s help, we will accustom ourselves to act as Yosef did, as it is said: “The second Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of unwarranted hatred, and the third Beit Hamikdash will be rebuilt in the future because of unwarranted love.”