By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 118 – Sweet Revenge! Or, is it?
They are both married to the same man. One insists that her husband is dead, and the other one insists just as emphatically that he is still alive. Since they are co-wives, the halacha is that the one’s testimony cannot impact the other. Therefore, the one who said her husband died is allowed to remarry, while the one who said he is still alive cannot. That is what we learned in the Mishna at the end of yesterday’s Daf.
The Gemara on today’s Daf is bothered by a diyuk. The Mishna seems to be implying that were wife number two to have remained silent, she would have been allowed to remarry as well. But how can that be? The only person testifying over here that her husband is dead is her co-wife, and the earlier Mishna unequivocally stated that a co-wife’s testimony is ineffectual for her other co-wife. How, then, can it be that this Mishna seems to be implying the opposite?
The answer, explains the Gemara, is that of course we would not have allowed wife number two to remarry had she remained silent. That’s pashut and the Mishna didn’t need to tell us that. The Mishna speaks of a case in which wife number two insists that their husband is still alive, because it is specifically then that we would have had a havah aminah to say that she is allowed to remarry.
Why would we have thought that? Because if the husband really is alive, then the best way for wife number two to facilitate and assure the downfall of wife number one is by staying quiet. That way, wife number one will remarry illegally and become forever forbidden to their husband. So why is wife number two apparently trying to save her co-wife from ruin by speaking up? It must be that, really, their husband is in fact dead, and therefore wife number two is trying to destroy her co-wife’s life by saying that their husband is alive and thus making her into an agunah. What about the fact, you may ask, that that would mean that she is also thereby making herself into an agunah? Well, that, says the Gemara, is the nature of the beast. Tamos nafshi im Plishtim. She is willing to throw herself on the sword if it means being able to bring down her co-wife with her whom she hates so much.
That is why the Mishna had to speak about this case. The situation makes it clear that, really, wife number two also knows that their husband is dead, so we may have thought to allow her to remarry as well. The Mishna therefore teaches us the chiddush that she is nevertheless not allowed to remarry.
Phenomenal, this concept of Tamos nafshi im Plishtim, isn’t it? It comes up again, by the way. On the same amud. The next Mishna says that when a co-wife returns from being abroad with her husband, and says that he died, she is allowed to remarry and gets her kesubah, but her co-wife cannot remarry. As stated in the earlier Mishna, one co-wife cannot testify for the other. Rabbi Tarfon, the Mishna continues, goes so far as to say that regarding wife number two we are not even chosheish l’chumrah for the testimony of wife number one. We are not at all concerned with it. Therefore, if the husband was a Kohein, we allow wife number two to continue eating terumah even though she herself is the daughter of a Yisrael.
Rashi explains that regarding wife number two the testimony of wife number one is considered a total lie just to try to cause her ruin. And what with the fact that if that is the case the latter is also causing ruin to herself by remarrying illegally? Tamos nafshi im Plishtim! She is willing to go down if it means bringing her co-wife down with her!
Why? What is the pshat in this idea of Tamos nafshi im Plishtim?
In the original context, we can understand it quite well. Shimshon wanted to exact revenge on the Plishtim who wrought so much destruction on the Jewish People. It would be both a tremendous Kiddush Hashem and a huge benefit to the Jewish People by eradicating, or at least greatly weakening the enemy. We can easily understand, then, why Shimshon was prepared to do this. For him it was most definitely not a matter of just wanting to take his nemesis down even if it meant that he would also go down. It was nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it was the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of K’vod Shamayim and Klal Yisrael.
But what in the world is going on in the mind of someone who stands to gain absolutely nothing from bringing down their foe; and, on the contrary, is going to suffer the same fate?! How can we possibly make any sense of such a thing?
Enter the Messilas Yesharim (chapter 11). The Ramchal provides us with a fantastic insight into the depth of human psychology. “Hatred and vengeance are also very difficult for the capricious heart of man to escape from them, for a man feels his insults very deeply and suffers great pain. Vengeance is sweeter than honey for him, because it alone [gives his spirit] rest. Therefore, for one to have the strength to abandon that to which his nature compels him, and instead forgo his rights and not hate he who aroused hatred within him, and not exact revenge despite the opportunity presenting itself, and not [even] bear this person a grudge; rather, he forgets and removes it all from his heart as if it never happened, that person is strong and mighty.”
The Ramchal goes on to say that the fact that the Torah gives us a mitzvah to do just that means that we can do it, despite the enormous difficulty involved.
The way the Ramchal describes the drive for hatred and vengeance really opens our eyes to the depth of the psychological underpinnings thereof. No, it is not necessarily logical, but it is nonetheless an incredibly powerful force. A person who was hurt by another experiences a terrible inner turmoil that gives him no rest until he evens the score by harboring a deep enmity and taking due revenge. That alone is what can calm his tempestuous spirit.
Now we understand why it is that someone in such a state is willing to throw himself on the sword as long as it means that he’ll be able to even the score and take his enemy down with him. Scary, isn’t it?
So what do we do about this? I mean, which one of us – when we’re in our right mind – wants to fall into this? Even if it won’t be something as drastic as death or eternal loneliness and the like, we still don’t want to get caught up in a vicious cycle of needing to even a score at any cost; even if it means suffering the same fate as our object of enmity!
I think our best bet is to try and take a cue from the paradigm of Yosef Ha’Tzaddik. If there was ever a person who was hurt by another and could be justified in taking sweet, sweet revenge, it was him. But he didn’t.
Before we get to that, though, perhaps one more bit of delving into the psychology of hate and vengeance. What is it that makes one want to go after the guy who wronged him at any cost? It seems pretty clear that this is a result of perceiving that the insult suffered stemmed from the perpetrator thereof. Now, that makes an awful lot of sense, doesn’t it? He did it, didn’t he?! So, the only way I can restore my internal equilibrium is by going after him, right?
Well, yes and no.
So long as my perception is that “He did it!”, then, yes, I will have no rest and my internal calm will not be restored until I get him back. But what if I can somehow manage to shift my perception and isolate the insult from the perpetrator thereof? If I can do that, then I’ve got a pretty good shot at being able to let it go as far as that guy is concerned.
And that’s exactly what Yosef Ha’Tzaddik did.
“And now do not be depressed and let it not be a source of [self] wrath in your eyes that you sold me here, because for a [source of] livelihood did the Almighty send me before you. For this is two years [already] that the famine is in the midst of the land, and [it will be] another five years that there will be no plowing and harvesting. And the Almighty sent me here before you to place for you a remainder in the land and to provide you with life for a great salvation. And now it is not you who sent me here, rather it is the Almighty, and He made me a contemporary and equal to Pharaoh, and master over his entire household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
Yosef successfully altered his perception of the events. It wasn’t my brothers who did this to me, he concluded, it was Hashem. They were but the messengers to carry it out; but, ultimately the source is Hashem and only Hashem. By executing this internal turn and shift of focus, Yosef was able to completely let go of any negative feelings towards his brothers, despite the heinous act that they did to him. He was able to recognize that they were not the true source of all that he suffered. If that is so, then why bear them a grudge? Do they have their issues of jealousy and anger management to work on? Perhaps. But what does that have to do with me? Why do I need to be personally upset over their personal failings? Since those failings of theirs are not what caused me my grief, why should I hold on to any bitterness and resentment? It won’t do them any good, and it certainly won’t do me any good either!
When you do this – this act of inward turning – you’re able to focus on the true source of pain which is, of course, whatever personal failing or mazal that was the real reason for why the suffering came about to begin with. It’s not that the desire and need to even the score suddenly evaporates; not at all. It’s that the internal model in your mind of how that equilibrium can be restored makes a dynamic shift. You no longer feel that you need to get that guy back; instead, you feel like you want to correct whatever internal flaw exists in yourself that brought the suffering to you to begin with. Or, alternatively, to turn to the One who decided that this should be your mazal and try to connect with Him in order to gain the understanding you need and desire.
No, this is most definitely not an easy undertaking. Not at all. But one thing is for sure. It’s a lot safer for everyone; especially yourself. And it is much more satisfying too. When a person takes that sweet revenge, sure it makes him feel good. But only for the moment. Eventually, that satisfying feeling will give way to a sense of lowliness that comes from acting out of a lack of self-control. And if it involved an act of Tamos nafshi im Plishtim, how much more so will the eventual feeling be one of sorrow and shame!
Following the paradigm of Yosef Ha’Tzaddik, on the other hand, is the supreme act of personal growth and greatness that creates an everlasting kinyan of true sipuk and simcha at having risen above the natural, animalistic limitations in order to climb the ladder towards emulating the Source of all beneficence.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.