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Letting Go of the Hot Poker – Yom Kippur 5770/2009

Picture a tombstone. In large letters is the name “John D. Doe.” The inscription reads: “The follwing people still owe me an apology.” Then there are four columns of names.

That was a man who knew how to hold a grudge. We laugh because this cartoon mocks something we’ve all had to deal with from both sides: grudges.

But in the real world, grudges are not funny. Certainly the Torah is not amused. Leviticus 19:18 states: Lo tikom v’lo titor et b’nei amekha; v’ahavta l’rei·akha kmokha. Ani Adonai. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countryman. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

The Sifra, the earliest midrash on Leviticus, explains the difference between vengeance and bearing a grudge. “If A. says to B. ‘Lend me your sickle’, and he refuses, and on the next day B. says to A. ‘Lend me your hatchet’, and he replies, ‘I will not lend it to you, just as you refused to lend me your sickle.’ [That is vengeance] If A. says to B. ‘Lend me your sickle,’ and he refuses, and on the next day B. says to A. ‘Lend me your hatchet,’ and he replies ‘Here it is; I am not like you, who would not lend me your sickle,’ [that is bearing a grudge].

People haven’t changed, have they? Our Rabbis understood how grudges lead to sharp words, conflict, estrangement and misery—and sometimes to revenge.

Grudges satisfy something low in our natures. They let us feel superior to the other; to claim the moral high ground. “I am not like you.” Grudges often start with real injuries. Some one harms us or hurts our feelings. That’s genuine. The question is, is holding a grudge really the best response?

The language we use hints at the problem. We carry a grudge. We bear a grudge. We hold a grudge. It’s part of our baggage. Sometimes we even nurse a grudge. We sustain it and keep it going.

But what do we really gain? All the literature on grudges agrees. The person who carries the grudge hurts himself much more than the object of the grudge.

In my early years as a Rabbi, I officiated at a wedding. The bride told me that her parents had gone through a bitter divorce when she was a child. Many years later, though both had remarried, the mother was still filled with rage at her ex. The bride came to me for advice, because she wanted her father and mother to walk her down the aisle, in the traditional Jewish way.

In such cases, I strive for shalom. Here are your options: if your mother won’t be close to your father, you can have one parent walk you half-way down, and the other the rest of the way, or each parent with their new spouses walk you half-way, or one parent walk you in, and then you go back and the other walks you in, or any other reasonable compromise.

The mother rejected all alternatives, plus she didn’t want the father to walk with the bride by himself. Her position was, “I won’t be in the same room with that man.” Finally, the bride said to her, “I really want you to be there. Please choose one of the arrangements, or don’t come.” The mother chose not to be at the wedding.

Now whom exactly did the mother hurt? Her daughter of course, but by that point the bride was also relieved. She wouldn’t have to worry about a screaming match breaking out at her wedding. The mother hurt herself the most, missing her only daughter’s wedding.

This leads me to three useful images about the toxic effects of holding a grudge.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, is a psychiatrist who works with addicts. One patient told him, “Carrying resentments is like letting someone whom you don’t like live inside your head rent-free.’”[1]

The second, source unknown, is, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

The third comes from our great sage Rabbi Harold Kushner. “I knew a woman who had been mistreated by her husband and who, ten years after her divorce, could still not surrender her rage. I counseled, ‘For ten years you have been walking around with a hot poker in your hand, ready to throw it at your ex-husband. But you’ve never had the chance. All you’ve done is burn your hand.’

Obviously, some injuries are very great, and don’t yield easily to remedy, but most of our grudges are about small slights and grievances, injured pride and insults, the bumps and scrapes of human interaction. And yet we grant residency in our head, drink the poison, and grasp the red-hot poker just the same.

I started thinking about this subject when I heard reports that at congregational meetings about the financial situation, and also from annual campaign calls, some people said things like, “I haven’t given in ten years, or I don’t come anymore, because so-and-so did such-and-such a thing.” Sometimes I was the so-and-so. And there’s no statute of limitations on grudges. I’ve run into people who are still angry about something that happened thirty years ago.

On the one hand, I’m grateful that these people keep up their membership. That shows real loyalty. On the other hand, it makes me feel sad. These grudges are standing between someone and a greater sense of community, or between them and a deeper spiritual life. Usually, we don’t even know that the person has this grievance, and when we become aware, we do try to do something about it. If I have hurt or offended you through omission or commission, please give me a chance to make it right. Just let me know. I will come to you and we will talk it out. It won’t be the first time I’ve done this.

I’ve also met people who harbor a grudge against Judaism in general because of some long-ago incident—somewhere else. So I am also ready to apologize on behalf of Judaism for hurt done to you by your Rabbi or your Hebrew school teacher or whomever. Why allow one person to ruin your Jewish life? Let it go.

The Torah bundles good advice with the grudge prohibition. Right before it, we are told, You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.  Reprove your kinsman but bear no guilt because of him. If someone hurts you or your feelings, go talk to them.

There is an art to this. Our rabbis tell us that we must speak them in private, without publicly embarrassing them. And we must not do it in anger. Screaming and hurling curses is both bad and ineffective reproof. The best method is tio use “I” statements. “I was really hurt that you didn’t call when I was in the hospital.” Not, “You are an inconsiderate jerk!”

Most of the time, such a conversation will lead to an apology. And then, you are supposed to forgive. What if they don’t apologize, or they deny their guilt? They still owe you an apology, but nevertheless for your own good you should let go of the grudge.

If for no other reason, do it for your health. A significant body of research indicates, in the words of one researcher, Professor Kathleen Lawler, that “People who have been able to forgive show clear health benefits. Whether we’re looking at heart rate and blood pressure or whether we’re looking at the number of medicines someone is on, their quality of sleep or the number of physical symptoms they report. Almost every way I’ve thought to measure it, people who have been able to think forgivingly show health benefits.”[2]

Emuna Braverman, who writes for, gives some good advice for purging the grudge poison from our system. She wrote specifically about marriages, but her ideas work for other relationships, too.

  1. Always be the first to apologize. Don’t brood, don’t be resentful, don’t be a martyr — and don’t worry about who is right. Just say “I’m sorry” (the author of Love Story has a lot of unhappy marriages to answer for).

This advice highlights the role that our egos play in holding grudges.

  1. “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Most things are not even worth noticing, let alone fighting over. Keep your eyes on the big picture, on the end goal. There will be some issues that require further “conversation” but choose your battles carefully.

A good way to address this is to ask a trusted friend to look at your issue with the other person. They are likely to say that you are blowing it out of proportion.

  1. Focus on the credit in the bank. All the acts of kindness and caring from your spouse [or friend] over the … years are not wiped out by one (or two) acts of thoughtlessness. In comparison, these blips on the radar screen are not worth of our notice.

This is such an important point. Anger narrows our vision so that we can only see the thing that provoked us. Zooming back to the big picture gives us the perspective we need to calm down and let our anger go, instead of yielding to it.

  1. Accept your spouse’s (or friend’s) limitations. As you hope he or she will accept yours. We often spend a lot of time focused on what’s missing in others and not enough time on the deficiencies we can do something about — our own.

This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes. A woman comes into the kosher butcher and says, “I want a very fresh chicken.” The butcher says, “I have just the thing,” and hands her a chicken. She lifts up one wing and sniffs under it, lifts up the other, and gives a sniff, and then lifts up the tail and does the same. “That is not a fresh chicken! I want a really fresh chicken!” So he takes out another chicken, and she does the same thing: sniffs under each wing and the backside, too. After the third chicken fails , the butcher looks at her and asks, “Madam, could you pass this test?”

Every time you find yourself getting angry with someone for some offense, and want to hold on to that anger, stop and ask, “Could I pass this test?” We are all flawed human beings, so let’s be patient with each other’s failings.

  1. Be introspective and judge favorably. Many of our grudges result from oversensitivity. They’re not ignoring us; they’re preoccupied with their own concerns.

This is one of the great rules for life, based on Pirkei Avot: Hevei dan et kol ha-adam l’khaf z’khut—Judge everyone favorably.”[3]

One of Nahman of Bratzlav’s most famous teachings is called “Azamra!”[4] As summarized on the Breslov web site, “The gist of the lesson is that one must look favorably at everybody, including — perhaps especially — himself. Finding good in ourselves and in others makes ‘music;’ it brings one to joy and happiness, dispelling depression and lethargy. Then one can sing and praise God and pray to Him.”[5]

  1. Don’t take it personally. Most people’s behavior is a reflection of who they are and consistent with that. If you experience someone as cold, that’s probably how they seem to everyone they meet. It’s not about you, so you can let it go.

Once again we see the role our egos play in anger and forming grudges. Amazingly enough, it’s not always about you.

There is so much wisdom here, including her conclusion, “Bearing a grudge destroys all relationships and ultimately the bearer himself. It is not only a mitzvah but it is in our self-interest to let it go and move on. Let’s pray that the Almighty gives us the strength and perspective to do so.”

The Yom Kippur liturgy gives us tools to get us on our way, to help us let go of the red-hot poker. One is from the very beginning of the Kol Nidre service, “I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have done me wrong, whether deliberately or by accident, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.” This pledge stands as a gatekeeper at the entrance to the Day of Atonement, asking us to forgive, which includes letting go of our grudges.

Perhaps this is related to what the Talmud says, “One who overcomes his natural tendencies to hold a grudge and instead forgives; all his sins are in turn forgiven!”[6]

Our Rabbis acknowledged that it is natural to hold a grudge and nurse a grievance—but in order to do teshuvah you must overcome natural tendencies. When we do so, we reach a higher plane. We are worthy of forgiveness.

So it’s no surprise that both major confessions address holding grudges. In the Ashamnu, the word ni·atznu, “we have been scornful,” is understood to mean, “We have born grudges and fostered hatred in our heart.”[7]

In the Al Het, “Al het she-hatanu l’fanekha b’sinat hinam,” “For the sin we sinned against You with causeless hatred,” includes bearing grudges.

I propose a project for us all. Let’s look into our hearts and search out the poison we’re carrying. What slights and offenses are we clutching to ourselves? Dr. Brenda Shoshanna, in her book The Anger Diet, presents a method: “Make a list of people you hold grudges against. Write down what each person did to you and how long you’ve held the grudges. Then write down one thing you liked about each person you have a grudge against. Go over the reasons you developed the grudges and write down one time you behaved that way and what your reason was. Ask yourself what you need to let go of the grudge. Let go of one grudge a day.”

And if that grudge has hurt a relationship, seek out the person and try for reconciliation. In my experience, when two people finally talk to each other—with I statements—the grudge holder and the grudge target both feel a great sense of relief. It’s good to evict the negative avatar from our heads, to neutralize the poison, to release the hot poker.

My friend Rabbi Jack Riemer tells about a friend of his whom he admired for his even temper. He never reacted to pressure, or criticism. At contentious meetings, he never raised his voice and kept things calm. “He may fight—but the day the fight is over—it’s over.” So Rabbi Riemer asked him, how do you do it? And the man told him his story:

I wasn’t always like that. But I had an experience some years ago, which taught me a lesson. And ever since that incident, I have been able to keep my cool, and control my temper.

Rabbi Riemer tells that many years ago, this man was cheated by a business partner, and he was justifiably angry.

My friend lived in New Jersey, and worked in New York. And so every day, five days a week, for many years, he drove to and from work on the New Jersey Turnpike. And every time he did, he had to pass exit 9, the New Brunswick exit, which was the exit where the man who had cheated him lived. Every time he passed that exit, he would think of this man, and of what this man had done to him, and he would explode with anger. He would let out a string of profanity. He would say: I hope that that no good so-and-so gets what he deserves for what he did to me. And he would rant and rave until his face got red. And he would slam his fist into the driver’s wheel…

It got to the point where his wife began to worry about his health, because she could see how agitated he was. She could see his nostrils flare with anger. And so she worried about his blood pressure. She was afraid that he was going to have a heart attack or a stroke right there on the Turnpike. But there was nothing she could do about it, nothing that would stop him from ranting and raving every time he passed exit 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike, and thought about the man who had done him so much harm.

And then, one day, my friend happened to meet somebody who knew this man who had done him wrong. And so he asked him: Do you remember so-and-so? Do you happen to know whatever became of him? Do you know what that no good so-and-so is doing now? And the man said: Sure I remember him. He died about fifteen years ago.

Rabbi Riemer’s friend learned at that moment that holding grudges is futile and self-punishing; that we need a statute of limitations for rage. And we can learn from him to look closely at what we are carrying around, and seek to lighten our grudge burden in the coming year. Let it go, let it go, let it go. Seek reconciliation and forgiveness, and you will lift your spirits and improve your health—physical, emotional, and spiritual.

So my prayer for us all is: may we in the coming days and months be able to evict an offender from our brains, purge the poison from our souls, and let go of the red hot grudge poker, And by doing so, may we find peace, reconciliation, serenity, and joy. Amen.

1Joseph Telushkin, Code of Jewish Ethics Volume 2: Love your Neighbor as Yourself.

2As quoted in

3Avot 1:8

4Likutey Moharan I, 282


6Rosh Hashana, 17a

7From Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai’s elaboration of the Ashamnu.