Some years ago, just as social media began to explode in popularity, a sensitive young man living in New York City had a decision to make. Every day he was bombarded by people’s acts of unkindness. He witnessed pregnant women standing on the subway, and no one offering them a seat. He saw the elderly rudely jostled as they tried to cross busy streets. He watched men shout out disgusting profanities as young women walked by. He picked up after people who dropped their garbage beside garbage cans rather than disposing of it properly. And with each ill act, he felt ill himself. He took on the wounds and pain of every wrong, every bit of meanness he saw, and bore the emotional scars internally.
Finally, one day, he decided to do something about it. This was during the early days of Twitter, before people were really using it as a vehicle to report on the actions, right or wrong, positive or negative, of others. He took it upon himself to send out messages every time he saw someone act insensitively. Whenever anyone in his line of sight did something bad, something mean spirited, something malicious or inappropriate, he tweeted it to everyone he knew. At first, it had a healing effect. He felt righteous in announcing his indignation to the world. But then an odd tone creeped into his tweets. He began to get meaner. In taking a form of revenge on the ills of the world, he changed to become one of them. His tweets lost their compassion. Whatever heart had been in them was gone, and in its place came mockery, cruelty, arrogance and snide remarks. And as soon as he realized what he’d become, he stopped, so he could return to be the person he was and wanted to be, someone who cared and was kind.
I struggle with this on a daily basis, not, perhaps, as deeply and intensely as this young man, but I struggle nonetheless. There have been many times in my life when I wanted to shout out, to tell an individual to cut it out, to stop acting like a jerk, to learn some manners. And there have been a few times when I’ve seriously wanted to take revenge on someone for hurting me or someone I love, to cause them the same level of pain and anguish (or more) that they caused me. And even as I’ve felt this, and known that the opposite of revenge is forgiveness, I have been unable to let go, to forgive and get over the anger and bitterness I hold deep inside. I know that forgiveness is gentle and generally brings with it a gentle response, and the ability to let go allows healing to begin. Even so, there are one or two people who, were I to come upon them alone late at night, my first impulse would be to punch them rather than shake their hand.
Judaism, of course, advises against revenge. I asked my rabbi what approach Judaism recommends, and what he told me, while not unexpected, was, in its own way, calmly helpful, as it framed my internal struggle in real world logic and understanding. “Judaism” he told me, “teaches that every action (and inaction) has consequences, and that human beings are always responsible for the consequences of their choices, whether intentional or unintentional, awake or asleep.” He went even further. He quoted Leviticus 19:17-18. “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am Adonai.” And, he said, “The Talmud takes it one step further, though. It teaches that, unless one is certain that he/she can rebuke or reprove WITHOUT causing offense, one should refrain from rebuking or reproving at all.”
So not only is it inappropriate to hit or hurt someone you want to get back at, it’s equally wrong to tweet or humiliate or take revenge, unless it is done in a way that causes no offense. And that’s the rub. To be the kind of person you want to be, you can’t allow yourself to become the kind of person you want to hurt or rebuke. Before forgiveness of others must come acceptance of oneself, of whom one wants to be. That’s the first step I’m learning to take, on the long, slow, difficult road to a kinder, gentler world.
And that’s the good word.
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