Tish’ah B’Av is now behind us. Once again, we have introspected as to why we have not yet merited the Final Redemption, particularly so in this unique and strange year. We certainly have – once again – determined to do something about the primary cause of the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash per Yoma 9, i.e., sin’as chinam (SC), usually translated as “baseless hatred.” And yet, looking around me at the state of world affairs, I must conclude that the problem of SC is, in fact, worse than ever.
What is SC? Why would someone hate another baselessly? Surely that is something only a psychopath would do. Ordinary people have a reason that they hate someone else. Three incidents that our Sages point to help us to understand.
The first occurred about 100 years before the Churban, in 63 BCE. The evil Hasmonean king Yannai was gone. His wife, the righteous Shlomzion HaMalkah, succeeded him, and she appointed her eldest son Hyrcanus II to succeed her. This did not sit well with her younger son Aristobulus II, so he went to war to overthrow his brother. Making a long story short, at one point, Aristobulus had taken refuge in the Beis HaMikdash (Temple), while the forces of Hyrcanus laid siege outside. Aristobulus pleaded with Hyrcanus to send in animals so that the Korban Tamid (daily offering), which they both saw as vital to klal Yisrael, could continue. For a while, they supplied – at enormous cost – the daily animals. Soon enough, however, they became so consumed with hatred that, instead of accepting huge money to continue supplying the Korban Tamid, they sent a pig up in the bucket that had been lowered with gold payment (on the 17th of Tamuz). In the end, both brothers appealed to the Romans to take their side, and once the Romans intervened, they never left, ultimately leading to the destruction.
The second incident – the well-known story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza – occurred a year or two before the Churban, around 68 CE. The anonymous host (Ploni) was so infuriated by Bar Kamtza’s presence at his feast that – despite being offered sponsorship of the entire expensive feast – he hated Bar Kamtza so much that he ejected and humiliated him instead.
The third incident occurred a year or two later, in the heat of the terrible fighting between the factions of Jews in besieged Jerusalem. The accursed Vespasian wisely decided to hold off attacking the city; he let the Jews kill each other for months and do the dirty work for him. Amid all that – in their hatred for each other and their policy of appeasement of the Romans – the extremists burned down storehouses that could have fed everyone for years.
I believe that these awful stories have a common thread – of people so consumed with hatred of the other that (a) they strongly act against their self-interest, and (b) they are unwilling to grant any possible credence to anything that their opponents say or do, even when it is clearly evident that on this matter their opponents may be correct.
Society around us is bristling with this sort of hatred. In Israel, Netanyahu can do nothing right for his opponents, while his supporters see only evil in his political opponents. In America, it is far worse. The level of hatred and intolerance for anything involving President Trump is beyond insane. Anything and everything that Trump does is evil, hateful, racist, and idiotic, no matter what. For Trump’s supporters, the Left has lost its collective mind, supports insane policies, and is motivated only by hatred and power and reverse racism. For each side, nothing that the other does or suggests is worthy of any consideration. The level of hatred and distrust between the sides is such that former friends do not speak, families are ripped apart, and people are afraid of speaking their mind lest they and their families and their businesses get destroyed.
Is this baseless hatred? Most people are eager to explain in vivid detail why they hate the other side so much. But is the hatred justified? Let us see if the same old SC factors are at play.
The first is that they act against their self-interest. Take what has happened over the past two months in Portland, a place I used to be proud to call home. The riots that have destroyed businesses caused much harm and violence and injury, and benefit no one. But those who are rioting are so consumed by hatred that they are willing to destroy the city and the institutions that might help them, so long as they can vent their hatred. On the one hand, nationwide, BLM vandals have caused enormous damage and hurt the Black community far more than the White, just to make their debatable points. On the other hand, by totally demonizing the activists on the left and saying needlessly provocative and foolish things, President Trump and his supporters have, in many cases, stoked and inflamed instead of trying to defuse and find common ground. In both cases, the sides have acted against their self-interest – which would be to reduce the conflict and solve the real problems.
The second is the refusal to find any good in the positions of the other side. To any neutral observer, it should be manifestly evident that President Trump, despite endless hostility and opposition from the Democrats, has managed to rack up many major achievements. Conversely, despite the presence of many insane ideas coming from the left, there are many good ideas that could be helpful as public policy. But partisans on neither side will grant this, and seek only to attack and demonize.
Perhaps this is what SC means. I think it would be helpful if – instead of translating sin’as chinam as “baseless hatred” – it would be translated as “inexcusable hatred.”
Is there ever room for hate? On the one hand, the Torah says (VaYikra 19:17) “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart,” and hatred is surely to be avoided. On the other hand, “There is a time to hate” (Koheles 3:8). In truth, it is only very pious people who hate no one. Most people harbor what they consider justified resentment, although we should always endeavor to reduce that. But it is SC, or “inexcusable hatred” – that goes over and beyond reason – that is the scourge and source of our problems. It is anger that (a) is so intense that it goes against one’s self-interest, and/or (b) refuses to find any redeeming quality in the subject of the hatred.
Let us not kid ourselves: The hatred today is not limited to the world of politics and the larger society. Within our Jewish community, even within the Orthodox community, there are groups that hate and distrust others deeply. Now there may be quite justified reasons for one side to resent, dislike, and perhaps even, heaven forfend, hate the other side. However, when the hatred grows so intense that they act to destroy each other even against their self-interest, and refuse to see any redeeming quality in the other, we have truly unjustifiable hatred. Add to that when righteous or religious indignation is mixed in, and this “unjustifiable hatred” reaches extremely toxic levels and destroys us. So long as that goes on, we stand no chance at meriting the Beis HaMikdash’s rebuilding.
As we look forward to the weeks of nechamah, let us consider that the word does not only mean “comfort or consolation.” In addition, the word means “reconsidering,” as we find the word used in several places to describe Hashem re-thinking his former plan, as it were (e.g., B’reishis 6:6, Sh’mos 32:14). We need to reexamine how we think about and act towards those with whom we disagree. We need to reflect more, hit “Send” less, respond less to provocations, and spend more time trying to judge others favorably and trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps that will allow us to enter from the seven weeks of nechamah effectively to the weeks of t’shuvah soon coming up. We sure need something powerful to merit a better year than this very terrifying one we are experiencing. If we do so, surely Hashem will have a much easier time bringing nechamah, in the usual sense of the word, very soon.
Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer is a rabbi, attorney, and writer living presently in Forest Hills, and hoping to go on aliyah. He has served as rabbi in several congregations, and helps individuals with wills, trusts, and mediation.