Minding Our Own Mind

Every once in a while, we can learn something from a politician. Usually, it is precisely what not to do. Lately, there’s been quite a lot of that, perhaps even more than we need to learn. However, last week there was an amazing example of a decent politician who tried to do the right thing, and perhaps in Hilchos Sheva Mitzvos Bnwi Noach it was just fine (see Rav Yechiel Michel Stern, Hatorah Hetmimah, Tehillim, page 575). But for us, it was not enough and was even forbidden, an extraordinary object lesson for us all this Elul.

 It all began with a feud between two politicians, which erupted in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Ted Cruz, a Texan senator and former presidential candidate, had voted against a federal relief package for New York State after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. To be sure, Cruz and other Republicans claimed that “the relief package had become laden with unrelated pork spending” and was rejected for that reason. One of Cruz’s most vociferous critics was Rep. Peter King from Seaford, N.Y., who has denounced Cruz upon many occasions for his narrow-minded mean-spirited decision and was totally unimpressed with his fellow Republican’s defense. Now that the shoe was on the other foot and Texas was the state in need, Mr. King tweeted a message for Mr. Cruz: “Ted Cruz and Texas cohorts voted vs. NY/NJ aid after Sandy, but I’ll vote 4 Harvey aid. NY won’t abandon Texas. 1 bad turn doesn’t deserve another.” Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) re-tweeted King’s message and praised him for the sentiment.

Now, I want to stress that I am a fan of Pete King. He is a decent man of principle and I would have voted for him for president had he actually run when he was considering doing so. But if he were Jewish, he would have transgressed a prohibition in the Torah because of his tweet.

The Torah (Vayikra 19:18) teaches, “You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge.” Chazal (Yoma 23a) give an example of each of these prohibitions. “What constitutes revenge? A man asks his neighbor if he can borrow his scythe. The neighbor refuses. However, the next day the roles are reversed. The scythe owner needs his neighbor’s ax. The neighbor refuses, pointedly saying, ‘I will not lend it to you, just as you would not lend me your scythe.’ What is considered netirah, bearing a grudge? In the same scenario, the scythe owner responds, ‘Here is my ax. I will not act as you did in refusing me your scythe.’ This is netirah.”

This is exactly what both Representatives King and Rice did, surely thinking that they had done a fine thing.

In fact, the Mesilas Yesharim (Chapter 11) teaches that these two middos requirements are so difficult to attain that “they are easy only for the angels.” The Rambam (end of Hilchos Dei’os) declares that “the Torah insisted on avoiding grudges to the point that he erases the matter completely from his mind. This is because as long as he still maintains his grudge against the person, he may someday actually take revenge.” The Rambam may be reflecting the Mesilas Yesharim’s dictum that it is almost superhuman not to retaliate as long as one is angry or resentful because of a rejection or rebuff.

As we rapidly approach Rosh Hashanah, it behooves us to examine the message we are receiving from these lofty expectations the Torah has for us to act like the malachei elyon and beyond all standards of human behavior. The key to understanding these demands upon us is that the Torah wants us to be in control, not only of our actions, but even of our thoughts. The sin of netirah is primarily in the heart (Sefer Chofetz Chaim, pesichah, lavin 8-9).

When we will soon be reciting viduy, the enumeration of sins, we will ask forgiveness for hirhur haleiv, transgressions of the heart and mind. The Mesilas Yesharim (Chapter 11) quotes Chazal who say that these sins are even worse than those that are associated with an action. One wonders why this is so. Surely one would think that actions are worse than thoughts, which remain somewhat inert and unfulfilled. Rav Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh Hachaim, Shaar 1, Chapter 14) explains that a sin in the mind negatively affects even higher worlds than an action.

Rabbeinu Bachya (Devorim 29:18) cites the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:8), who explains that man is defined more by his power of thought than by his actions. Therefore, when he sins in his mind, he is subverting and ruining the best gift he has been given by his Creator (see also Uvo Sidbak to Mesilas Yesharim, page 224).

This approach alerts us to the great importance that the Torah places upon our state of mind. These great gedolim reveal to us that our mind is the kodesh hakodoshim of the human being. We must guard this sacred territory with all our power, because ultimately that is how we will be defined. For this reason, although the rest of the world, even fine intelligent people, will feel that they have done nothing wrong by feeling angry or vengeful, as long as they have not acted upon their emotions, we are different. We have simultaneously been taught to avoid acts of vengeance and even thoughts of retaliation.

The story is told of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Kamenitz and author of the Birkas Shmuel, whose daughter became engaged to one of his talmidim. The young man went to learn in another yeshiva during the engagement period, ostensibly to avoid distractions, but soon sent a terse message to the rosh yeshiva breaking off the engagement. The Leibowitz family, especially the kallah, was devastated, but shockingly, after his marriage to someone else, the young man wrote to Rav Boruch Ber requesting a letter of recommendation for a rabbinic position to which he was applying. Not only did Rav Boruch Ber immediately write him such a letter, but being afraid that some feelings of resentment were still brewing inside him, Rav Boruch Ber asked a number of his talmidim to inspect the letter objectively to make sure that the tone and contents were completely positive. Clearly, Rav Boruch Ber wanted to follow the guidelines of the Rambam and the Mesilas Yesharim to completely eradicate any thoughts of nekamah that would result in the sin of netirah (see, also, ArtScroll Jaffa edition of Mesilas Yesharim, page 216).

In truth, these ideas were enunciated most clearly by the Ibn Ezra almost a thousand years ago. The Torah (Vayikra 5:7) directs that a poor person “shall bring as his guilt offering for that which he sinned two turtledoves, one for a chatas and one for an olah. The Ibn Ezra raises the issue that the poor man is substituting a bird for a lamb. But why does he have to bring two birds, when the wealthy sinners only had to offer one lamb? He answers that when he offers his meager korban, the pauper might have a fleeting moment of resentment that he cannot afford the more substantial korban of the wealthy man. He must therefore simultaneously offer a sacrifice which will atone for that thought. A number of meforshim (see, for instance, quotes in Ohel Moshe, page 132) see this halacha as the paradigm of how seriously the Torah relates to every one of our thoughts, even one that enters innocently into someone’s mind when he is fulfilling a mitzvah.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky (Orchos Yosher, page 68) cites a remarkable and uplifting story about Rav Shmuel Hanagid zt”l in this regard. The great sage, who was highly regarded by the king, was taking one of his regular walks with the monarch. An apparently anti-Semitic gentile suddenly ran up to Rav Shmuel, cursing and berating him in front of the king. Coming to his friend’s defense, the king gave orders that Rav Shmuel has the right to have the man’s tongue cut out. Instead, Rav Shmuel showered the man with gifts and befriended him, winning him over as an ally. On their next stroll, the gentile appeared once again, this time offering his blessings to Rav Shmuel. The king was incensed. “Why didn’t you follow my orders?” he demanded of his friend. “Actually,” Rav Shmuel responded gently to the king, “I did as you commanded, only I cut out his evil tongue and gave him a civil tongue instead.”

How can a person find the spiritual strength to overcome what the Mesilas Yesharim stated are natural feelings of anger and wish for revenge? The Chofetz Chaim (on Chumash, page 162) offers an incredible approach in the name of a certain gaon. “Imagine,” he suggests, “someone who is looking for man named Reuvein, whose services he requires. He inquires and is told that Reuvein can be found in a certain gathering of people nearby. He runs to the spot, and indeed the crowd is there, but Reuvein is nowhere in sight. Can you imagine the man getting angry at anyone in the crowd because his name is not Reuvein? Of course, he must go somewhere else and find the man he is seeking. The same,” concludes the Chofetz Chaim, “applies to all of us when someone insults us, disappoints us or hurts our feelings. We must think, feel and act as if the negative actions did not come from this person at all. The rejection or hurt feelings came directly from Hashem. There is no point in retaliating or being angry. Our role is to accept what has happened as the will of Hashem and move on.”

If we will work harder to fully accept whatever happens to us as Hashem’s will and to cleanse our minds of all negative thoughts, this will surely go a long way toward obtaining for us the blessings of a gut gebentched yohr, im yirtzeh Hashem.