Rambam cites a key prooftext. The story is told (2 Samuel 13) of how Amnon, one of King David’s children, raped his half-sister Tamar. When Absolom, Tamar’s brother, hears about the episode, his reaction seems on its face irenic, serene:
“Her brother Absolom said to her, ‘Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.’ And Tamar lived in her brother Absolom’s house, a desolate woman. When King David heard all this, he was furious. Absolom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad…”
Appearances, however, deceive. Absolom is anything but forgiving. He waits for two years, and then invites Amnon to a festive meal at sheep-shearing time. He gives instructions to his men: “Listen! When Amnon is in high spirits from drinking wine and I say to you, ‘Strike Amnon down,’ then kill him.” And so it happened. Absolom’s silence was not the silence of forgiveness but of hate – the hate of which Pierre de LaClos spoke in Les Liaisons Dangereuses when he wrote the famous line: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
There is another equally powerful example in Bereishit:
“Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age, and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him [velo yachlu dabro l’shalom.]” This literally means: “They could not speak with him to peace.”
On this, Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschuetz (c. 1690-1764) comments: “Had they been able to sit together as a group, they would have spoken to one another and remonstrated with each other, and would eventually have made their peace with one another. The tragedy of conflict is that it prevents people from talking together and listening to one another.” A failure to communicate is often the prelude to revenge.
The inner logic of the two verses in our sedrah is therefore this: “Love your neighbor as yourself. But not all neighbors are loveable. There are those who, out of envy or malice, have done you harm. I do not therefore command you to live as if you were angels, without any of the emotions natural to human beings. I do however forbid you to hate. That is why, when someone does you wrong, you must confront the wrongdoer. You must tell him of your feelings of hurt and distress. It may be that you completely misunderstood his intentions. Or it may be that he genuinely meant to do you harm, but now, faced with the reality of the injury he has done you, he may sincerely repent for what he did. If, however, you fail to talk it through, there is a real possibility that you will bear a grudge and in the fullness of time, come to take revenge – as did Absolom.”
What is so impressive about the Torah is that it both articulates the highest of high ideals, and at the same time speaks to us as human beings. If we were angels it would be easy to love one another. But we are not. An ethic that commands us to love our enemies, without any hint as to how we are to achieve this, is simply unlivable. Instead, the Torah sets out a realistic program. By being honest with one another, talking things through, we may be able to achieve reconciliation – not always, to be sure, but often. How much distress and even bloodshed might be spared if humanity heeded this simple command.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, to be published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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