In a world where manual labor counts less relative to intellectual and personal qualities, interpersonal relationships in the workplace count more than ever. Networking, knowing the right people, and fostering positive relationships have become the bread and butter of the contemporary workplace. Usually, these relationships are highly reciprocal. One would not be able to expect an “in” in a company after a prior refusal to be of help to its executive. It is totally understandable that one would not show goodwill towards someone who has not shown goodwill when it was needed.
As Jews, however, we are taught otherwise. The Torah tells us, in a verse that is codified as part of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, “Lo tikom v’lo titor et benay amecha,” “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against your fellow” (Vayikra 19:18; see Rambam Sefer Hamitzvot lavin 304 and 305, Hilchot Dei’ot 7:7, and Sefer Hachinuch mitzvot 241 and 242).
The Gemara (Yoma 23a) says that the halachic definition of revenge is refusing someone a favor because of his prior refusal to do a favor, such as refusal to lend a tool to a neighbor who had earlier refused lending an identical tool. The paradigmatic example of bearing a grudge is acquiescing to lend them the tool while reminding the person of his earlier refusal.
This high standard of forgiveness and maturity seems Judaism itself teaches us. Entire masechtot in the Gemara deal with contentious lawsuits and financial claims that do not live up to this standard of forgiveness and absolution. In fact, the Ramban (Vayikra 19:18) writes that when the verse continues, “Hochei’ach tochiach et amitecha,” “Rebuke your fellow,” it means that if we feel someone has wronged us, we should make sure to tell him that we feel that way. Does this not contradict the Gemara’s statement that one should not even remind a friend of an instance in which he refused to do a favor? Certainly, then, we should not remind someone that he actually wronged us!
Furthermore, the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 75b; see also ibid. 14a, 49a, 77a, and 79a) tells us that if an employer gives workers a serious impression that he is going to hire them and does not end up doing so, they may rightfully bear a grudge against him (“Ein lahem alav ela tar’omet”). How do we reconcile the workers’ right to bear a grudge with the biblical prohibition against vengeance and bearing a grudge?
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak Yom Kippur 20:7) suggests an approach to this conundrum. A person’s status, argues Rabbi Hutner, can at times be established in a very narrow and particular respect. For example, there is no one who would suggest that a person who received a parking ticket should be considered a criminal; this particular violation does not affect the status of this person as a whole. Although what the person did was not commendable, it is not something that affects the whole person. At the same time, it is important to note that as far as the policeman and jurisdiction that issued the ticket are concerned, the ticket definitely is something serious, something that needs to be straightened out. Similarly, there is no question that the Torah does not want chaos and disorder to rein in this world. Thus, batei din, litigation, and personal accountability all are taken as serious issues that must be resolved.
This does not mean, though, that animosity, grudges, and hostility should prevail. The Torah expects us to have the maturity and goodwill to be able to settle our interpersonal issues with others without entire relationships with said others being compromised; we should be able to settle those issues and move on happily with life. (See a similar approach in Orach Mishpatim, C.M. 232 s.v. u’var. A dissenting approach is found in Teshuvot Maharshag 2 pp. 68-69.)
This applies, however, only when someone actually harmed us or caused us damage. Refusing us a favor or goodwill is not a crime, nor can it be settled in beit din. A person is entitled not to do a favor, and although it may not be the nicest thing to do, it cannot be held against him.
Claims and feelings are important and should not be ignored, but only inasmuch as we actually have been wronged. Constructive, consequential, and solution-oriented disagreements are acceptable and sometimes even encouraged as long as they remain within their proper boundaries and do not poison other elements of our relationships with one another. Moving our lives in this direction will help us gain a proper perspective on what is important and what is not, help us understand that our fate is in our hands and not in others’, and make us the great people that we are.
Published in the YU Lamdan