by Rabbi Sheryl Nosan-Blank, Founding Rabbi of
The Nefesh Project
We Jews know hate well. Against impossible odds, we survive consuming flames of anti-Semitism. Against lurking fears, we are sometimes urged to safeguard embers of hate for people, or peoples, who’ve hated us. Hate, like love, is pervasive and powerful. This week’s readings challenge us to consider both love and hate in the context of mitzvot.
The week’s parashah, Va-et’chanan, commands “
V’ahavtah et Adonai Elochechah- You shall love Adonai your God
” which is a familiar part of our prayer services (Deuteronomy 6:5). Va-et’chanan’s warnings against hateful rejection of the commandments and their Source are less familiar. However, the parashah repeatedly admonishes us against hatred which could lead to our annihilation and scar generations to follow (Deuteronomy 7:10 and 5:9). Whether God-based or god-less, passing or persistent, global or personal, hatred is associated with destruction.
In our time, generalized and personalized hatred fuel ongoing brutality, murder, and unchecked rape in Syria, Sudan and Congo. In our historic tradition, hatred played a similar role nearly 2 millennia ago in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was unquestionably destroyed by Roman violence in 70 CE (one of the many tragedies recalled annually on Tisha b’Av – the Ninth day of the Hebrew Month of Av – which was marked last Sunday).
However, rabbinic tradition points to internal Jewish hatred as the catalyst of our own demise.
Rabbi Yohanan teaches that “
” – hatred for naught – led to the devastation of Jerusalem (Tractate Gittin 56a). Josephus (1st century historian) attests to the loss of hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives with this upheaval which destroyed the ancient Jewish World. And the cause? Rabbi Yohanan identifies a man name Bar Kamsa, who erroneously received an invitation to his enemy’s banquet. Bar Kamsa came to the event. Although Bar Kamsa acted graciously and generously, his hate-filled host sent him away disgracefully; “esteemed” guests looked on, silently. This pointless act of unchecked hatred led to the horrors described in the biblical book of Lamentations which is traditionally read on Tisha B’Av. We might expect to find a commandment prohibiting hatred in our tradition, yet instead, the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, teaches “
there is a time to love and a time to hate
” (Kohelet 3:8). When could hate be allowed? Can any “time to hate” ever be acceptable?
Leviticus 19:17 provides a clue, teaching “
Lo tisna et achicha belvavecha – you shall not hate your brother in your heart
.” Maimonides explains that this verse prohibits harbouring hate silently (Hilchot Dai’ot Ch. 6 Hal. 5&6). He guides us to the conclusion of the Levitical verse: “
you shall certainly rebuke your neighbour, and not incur sin
” (Leviticus 19:17). Pent-up hate, according to Maimonides, is forbidden, but constructive use of the powerful emotion is actually commanded as a mitzvah.
Constructively directed, rather than flowing for naught, hate can be used for good.
Bruriah, a Talmudic Sage, illustrates this concept to her husband, Rabbi Meir. Neighbourhood thugs troubled Meir so much that he prayed for their death (Brachot 10a). Bruriah, citing Psalm 104, redirecting her husband to pray for the end of the sin so the sinners would be no more (because they would repent and become upright). Bruriah helped Meir stop, reconsider his options, and chart a new course. He followed her advice. The neighbours change their way – but only after Meir had changed the way he directed his passionate feelings.
Perhaps unexpectedly, hatred is allowed in Torah and tradition – within certain parameters. Sinat Chinam – hatred-for-naught, festering hatred and destructive hatred are prohibited. However channelling hate for good purpose can lead to greater self-understanding and a clearer path to righting the wrongs we encounter. The problem with sinat chinam is not the hatred, but the aimlessness of “
” -being “for-naught” and without value.
The Hebrew word “
” – often translated as grace – has the sense of something freely given, without cost or responsibility to the recipient. Those who hate without constraint, inflict costly injury and take no responsibility for their actions. They leave trails of tears and destruction behind them.
What can we do? We can neither stop the world’s hatred nor heal everyone who has felt its bite. But we certainly can redirect our passions constructively. We can also look to this week’s haftarah portion for a response to sinat chinam.
This Shabbat following Tisha B’Av has the special name “
” – usually translated as the Sabbath of Comfort. Our haftarah portion opens with God’s compassionate message, “
Nachamu, Nachamu! – Comfort, Comfort
!” (Isaiah 40:1).
Traditional translations imagine the Holy One extending comfort to Zion and her children after Jerusalem was razed. But what if the Source of Compassion is talking to us?
What if we are the ones being told to bring comfort to victims of “
”? Can we reverse free flowing “
” hate? If we reverse the letters of unconstrained “
” we discover the “
n’ch – נ ח
” of “
” – comfort. Perhaps this is not a message of God comforting the stricken of yesteryear, but instead a message to us to comfort the stricken we encountered yesterday, or the one we may encounter tomorrow.
This Shabbat Nachamu, let us acknowledge that there is a time to hate – a brief time which can give us pause to turn our passion to good purpose. Let us soften our ears so that consoling words of our tradition can heal our hurts. May we bring comfort and strength to those contending with hate, as our voices join in the ancient words:
Nachamu – Nachamu
, Be Comforted – Be Comforted!