On an e-list that I get, there’s a discussion right now about grudges and forgiveness. It originated in a family quarrel described by one of the posters, and some appalling behaviour (as it was presented on the list–I have no personal acquaintance with the facts of the case ) at a time of crisis. The original poster was struggling with whether to forgive the wrongdoer.

The whole business of grudges is fascinating. From an evolutionary point of view, grudges make perfect sense. If someone has done you down once, you are well advised to remember this and treat them warily in the future. In the concise demotic wisdom, “Fool me once–shame on you. Fool me twice–shame on me.”

So why then are we told to forgive? What, if anything, do we gain by forgiving? The list discussion that made me think about this is following the expected track: carrying grudges weighs you down and, irrespective of the wrongdoer’s contrition or lack thereof, it’s better for you to let the quarrel go and move on. There is some truth to this; it does take a lot of psychic energy to maintain animus. I think of two women whom I knew who were enemies for many years, interfering in each other’s lives in negative ways. When one died, the other said, “We were enemies so long, we might as well have been friends.”

The Torah, not surprisingly, provides us with a great example of grudge-carrying — ‘Eisav/Esau and Ya’aqov/Jacob. After Ya’aqov has snookered their father’s blessing away from ‘Eisav, to whom it ought to have gone by rights, ‘Eisav is understandably hurt and furious. But where he steps into the dark side (from my point of view) is not in the immediate emotional maelstrom following his discovery of Ya’aqov’s trick, but in what is one of the most chilling verses in the Torah:

And ‘Eisav begrudged Ya’aqov over the blessing which his father had blessed him, and ‘Eisav said in his heart: The days of mourning for my father draw near and I will kill Ya’aqov my brother. (Genesis/Breishit 27:41)

Talk about premeditation! Until this moment, there is little in ‘Eisav’s conduct as the Torah describes it to explain to me why he comes to represent Israel’s supreme antithesis. (Note: the midrash is an altogether different proposition.) But here in the Torah we have multiple levels of evil. A son contemplates his father’s approaching death, not in terms of the loss of a beloved and sheltering parent, but as an opportunity to kill. Why does ‘Eisav feel he has to wait? Perhaps because he can’t do it while his father’s moral authority holds sway in the family, perhaps (as one of the commentaries suggests) because Ya’aqov in his mourning will withdraw from doing mitzvot and become morally vulnerable, perhaps because ‘Eisav simply doesn’t want to hurt his father.

And then, to see killing his brother as a resolution of his problem–this is psychopathic behaviour. Tellingly, the Torah text adds “my brother” to ‘Eisav’s interior monologue against Ya’aqov, as if to emphasize its villainy and pathos. When Rivqa/Rebecca tells Ya’aqov of the plot, she says that ‘Eisav is “consoling himself by planning to kill you.” Rashi, commenting on the word mitnakheim which can be translated as regret or console, says that ‘Eisav has regretted his brotherhood and has turned his thoughts to alienating himself from Ya’aqov and killing him. ‘Eisav is not the victim of his passions, he uses them, like Lady Macbeth, as an encouragement to pursue what might have been a momentary urge.

In Ch. 19 of Leviticus/VaYiqra, the Torah makes a nice distinction. In v. 18, we are told: “Do not take vengeance against and do not begrudge the children of your people, and love your neighbour as yourself; I am God.” What is the difference between vengeance and begrudging? Rashi explains by example; imagine that you asked your neighbour to lend you a tool and she refused and then, the next day, she called upon you to borrow a tool from you. What do you do? If you refuse and say to her, “Just as you refused to lend me, so I refuse to lend you,” that is vengeance. But if you lend her your tool but say, “Here it is, for I am not like you who would not lend to me,” that is begrudging.

So vengeance is the action; begrudging is keeping the anger in the heart alive until an opportunity presents for its expression. Most of the time, most of us forgive the inevitable jostles that life hands out to us, and chalk up our bumps and bruises to chance and not malign intent. But for some of us, every bruise is named, tagged, catalogued and archived under its presumed author’s name. And we revisit the collection. Again and again.

And for some of us, even deep wounds are acknowledged but then passed over, as we turn to the future. Hope moves us forward, even as we allow ourselves to be wounded — sometimes by the same people or in the same way. Again and again.

So perhaps grudges are the opposite of hope, and that’s why they’re so toxic. To hold a grudge is to assume that people are incapable of change and that there is no hope that next time, things might go better. Even vengeance seems mild compared to that kind of despair.

Hopefully yours,


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