It’s easy to accuse someone else of being defensive.
It is no coincidence that Parshas D’varim is always read on the Shabbos before Tish’ah B’Av, as Moshe Rabbeinu recaps the tragedy of the M’raglim (Spies). Chazal say that this incident not only transpired on the Ninth of Av, but it was the root of all future destruction that would take place on this cursed day (Taanis 29a).
Where did that generation go wrong? How could they have fallen for the lies of the spies?
Moshe provides an answer in his narrative, a detail that was left out of the original incident in Parshas Sh’lach. Moshe tells the people that, after the spies returned, “You slandered Hashem in your tents, claiming ‘Hashem took us out of Egypt because He hates us’” (D’varim 1:27).
Rashi comments that, in reality, Hashem loved the Jewish people; it was they who hated Hashem. Rashi explains this phenomenon: The way you feel about your friend is the way you imagine he feels about you. Because B’nei Yisrael hated Hashem, they assumed that this is how He related to them, as well. Many centuries later, psychologists would refer to this concept as “projection.”
Freud described projection as a defense mechanism, by which a person shifts inappropriate or unacceptable feelings onto another. The individual senses the undesirable emotions but cannot tolerate that he is the one experiencing them. He, therefore, unconsciously assumes that it must be someone else who is perpetrating these feelings.
Returning to our parshah, B’nei Yisrael were experiencing discomfort in their relationship with Hashem. They were unwilling to transition from their miraculous existence in the desert to a challenging life of mitzvos in Eretz Yisrael. As soon as spies were sent, and entering the Land seemed imminent, the people began to worry about their future. They were primed to question their commitment to Hashem. When the spies returned and told of the difficulties and dangers of the land, it confirmed all of their doubts and fears.
The nation could tell that there had been a major rupture in their relationship with Hashem, but they could not place their finger on who was at fault. Defensively, they assumed that it was Hashem who no longer loved them – that must be why things had completely fallen apart! But they were mistaken; it was the people who had lost their faith. It was they who had taken all of Hashem’s miracles and gifts, and then rejected Him as soon as the relationship demanded reciprocal commitment. In this sense, it was B’nei Yisrael who hated Hashem.
If this tragedy is the source of all future Tish’ah B’Av disasters, then it must be because this same midah continues to trample our religious and interpersonal relationships. The First Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because we pursued our own lustful desires, shifting our devotion away from G-d (see Yoma 9b). When the prophets arrived to encourage reconciliation, we scorned their rebuke under the projection that it was Hashem who was distancing Himself from us.
In the days of the Second Beis HaMikdash, we were guilty of applying this defense mechanism to our interactions with each other. Petty arguments became hateful feuds, as each side refused to acknowledge its role in the argument. All blame was projected across the aisle. It is easy to let hateful feelings fester unchecked when you believe it is “the other guy” doing all the hating.
The only way to overcome sin’as chinam, and finally put an end to this galus, is to take responsibility for our own feelings. Both in our connections with Hashem and each other, it is imperative to acknowledge our role in creating trust and love, instead of shifting the burden. It can be empowering to realize that it is within our control to rebuild relationships, as well as the Beis HaMikdash.