Do not say, “I’ll pay you back for this wrong!”
Wait for the LORD, and he will avenge you. — Proverbs 20:22
James Garfield, America’s 20th President, was in a train station when he was shot by an assassin. Teams of doctors rushed to the President’s aid. However, the President never lost consciousness and otherwise seemed all right. What bothered the doctors was that they couldn’t find the bullet that had entered the President. Even though he complained about slight numbness in his limbs, no one suspected that the bullet was probably lodged in his spine.
The President could have made a full recovery, but the doctors continued to prod and probe around the wound. Ultimately, they turned a three-inch wound into a 20-inch gash that was oozing and contaminated from all of the intrusion. After a summer of fighting for his life, President Garfield died – not from the gunshot, but from the infection caused by the doctors’ probing.
In Proverbs we read one of life’s greatest lessons: “Do not say, ‘I’ll pay you back for this wrong!’ Wait for the LORD, and he will avenge you.” In other words, don’t seek out revenge. Now we already learned this lesson in Leviticus 19:18 where Scripture says: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone . . .” The Jewish sages teach that Proverbs provides an additional teaching.
We already know that it is sinful to hurt someone else out of spite. However, here Proverbs is teaching us that it’s also hurtful to ourselves to seek out revenge. Like the doctors who infected President Garfield, when we probe and poke at a wound, we only make things worse for ourselves. Instead, when someone hurts us, we need to let it go and move on.
Moreover, it’s a complete waste of time and energy to plan and take revenge. The sages teach that instead, a person is much better off taking all that energy and using it to ask God for help. The same effort that it takes to harm our enemy could be used much more wisely to help ourselves by turning to God in prayer. Not only can God help heal us, promote us, and make things better than ever before, but ultimately only God can deal properly with our enemies.
How much better to focus on making our lives better and to let God deal with those who have harmed us?
When someone hurts us, it’s not always so easy to let it go. But when we truly understand deep down in our hearts that dwelling on the wound will only make it worse, we are able to drop it – not because the other person deserves to “get away with it,” but because we deserve peace — the peace that comes when we trust God to mete out our justice.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President