Mired in Grudge

Imagine if a sculpture was formed of your likeness when you were young and strong. Forty years later you would look back and see yourself in your prime, frozen in time at the peak of your strength. You would gaze wistfully at the strong lines of your handsome youth, and long to recapture it. But there would also be something in that facial expression you would rather leave behind: the immaturity and foolhardiness of youth.

In youth we are puffed up with self-importance and pride; we abandon friendships and unglue relationships at every perceived slight. As we grow older, we learn to appreciate the beauty and vital necessity of friendship; in hindsight we discover that losing a friend over an inability to forgive is mere vanity.

The Red Heifer

The Torah teaches us the complex process of purification from ritual defilement. A Jew who comes in contact with a dead body is ritually defiled. To enter the Temple, he or she was required to let seven days pass. A kohen As we grow older, we learn to appreciate the beauty and vital necessity of friendship. would mix a concoction of water and ashes from the charred carcass of a perfectly red heifer (which was burned along with hyssop, cedar wood and a crimson thread). On the third and seventh days after defilement, this mixture was sprinkled on the defiled Jew. After immersing in a mikvah (ritual bath), the person was purified.1

The reasons for this ritual, and the reason why purification is rendered by this seemingly bizarre process, are beyond the realm of human understanding. King Solomon, the wisest of men, proclaimed this mystical secret beyond even his caliber of wisdom. While we cannot fathom the underpinnings of this ritual, we might glean a lesson or two from it.2


Most conflict is sparked by an affront to our dignity, and most grudges are nursed to protect a bruised ego. A trusted friend makes an insensitive comment, a family member lets us down when we are particularly vulnerable and needy: these are the kinds of episodes that spark long-held grudges.

Most conflict is sparked by an affront to our dignity.

In most cases, the comment is not as horrid as the implication we discern in it. It is also eminently possible that the insinuation we heard was never intended by our friend, but we dismiss this possibility as unlikely. At times the insinuation is intended, and the friend is sincerely remorseful for the momentary lapse in judgment, but we refuse to offer a second chance.

The tragedy extends beyond the dead weight of a past friendship; it becomes a labyrinth of toxicity and hatred that ensnares all who step close to it. Like ritual impurity, it affects all who touch it, or who even associate with you from a distance. The toxic hatred must stop. Fortunately, you are able to stop it. How is this done?

Cedar and Hyssop

We begin with the mix of hyssop and cedar wood. The cedar is a tall tree; the hyssop is much shorter. Grudges are born of an inflated sense of self-importance: we are too conceited to concede. The first message is that the haughty cedar tree must learn to lie low like hyssop. Stop overanalyzing your bruised ego, and look at the larger picture. There is a wonderful fellow with whom you share a long and happy history that is being left out of your life because you refuse to forgive.3

Another way to view the tall cedar and the low hyssop is to think of perspective. The cedar’s height enables it to see beyond its own circle; it takes in the entire neighborhood. The hyssop cannot see beyond itself, because it is blocked by everything around it. When we hold our face close to the mirror, we see nothing but our face. If we take a step back, we take in the entire environment, and see ourselves and our interests in a larger context.

Ashes and Water

At this point, we consider the ashes and water. Ashes, born of fire, symbolize the grudges born of the anger that accompanies animosity. Now that you have seen and considered your friend’s perspective, it is time to let go of your anger. The searing ashes must be doused in cool, soothing waters. The glowing flame must be extinguished before the toxins can be cleansed and the relationship resurrected.

Now that you have seen and considered your friend’s perspective, it is time to let go of your anger.

At this point, you have cooled your grudge and taken a broader perspective. You are no longer angry, and don’t think terribly ill of your former friend. But this is not enough. You must sprinkle the concoction of ashes, water, thread, cedar and grass—this mix of humility and annoyance.4 On the third day and on the seventh.

Often, when we take offense at something a friend said or did, we are too angry to talk about it. We withdraw from the friendship without giving our friend a chance to explain. We are too riled up to discuss it, and nothing can be said that might appease us. This is unfair and inappropriate. It is unfair to the friend, who has no idea why you are so upset; and inappropriate, because the Torah prohibits hating another in our heart. If we have a grievance, we must air it; nursing a quiet grudge is a disservice to all.

We don’t bring up our grievance in anger; we wait several days to cool. But by the third day, we must bring our grudge to our friend’s attention. We don’t shoot him with burning flames, or douse him with buckets of water; rather, we sprinkle the gentle concoction of our grievance tempered by the humbling effects of having considered the larger perspective. We don’t anticipate an immediate response. After sharing our feelings, we withdraw and give the friend an opportunity to reflect.

In the process of purification, the concoction is sprinkled on the Jew once again on the seventh day, after which the Jew immerses in a mikvah (ritual bath) and is purified. The same applies to reconciliation. Several days after the first approach, we approach a second time. We have given our friend an opportunity to reflect; now he or she can offer an apology, immerse in the cleansing waters of reconciliation and reignite the friendship.

A Friend in Need

When Mitch Albom visited Morrie Schwartz, his dying professor, they reflected on how dependent we become in old age. “Mitch,” said the professor, “at the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive. At the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “But here is the secret. In between, we need others as well.”56