It’s not about hate

‘Rabbi, how does one find one’s path in life?’

This was the question X asked me as we travelled together to Liverpool for his interview with the Home Office about his asylum application. He spoke of the hatred he had witnessed in the country he’d fled: ‘It’s the wrong path, isn’t it?’

I’ve spent much of my last weeks with people struggling with pain, be it from politically or religiously motivated persecution, the verbal or physical brutality of family members, or the after-effects of tragedy.

Asked by a colleague what one-word subject I wanted to talk about, I answered ‘cruelty’.

But I don’t. In a week when North Korea tests more lethal weapons, when the President of the United States gratuitously repeats hate-tweets, when violence and fear feel ever more prominent, I want to talk about the opposite. If only to myself, I want to answer X’s question on that train to Liverpool.

What are the values by which the world should be led? What, at least, are the qualities by which our own lives should be led, which we should develop in ourselves in a frightening, beautiful, inspiring world?

We need justice. For students of the Hebrew Bible this is founded on the principle that every human being is created in God’s image. Therefore, as the Mishnah declares, ‘No one may say, “My parents were greater than yours.”’ No life is intrinsically of lesser value. We may not despise or ignore the rights, hopes and sufferings of another human just because he or she is different from ourselves. Justice equally requires us to expect that they treat us likewise.

We need a listening heart. We need imagination, the capacity to think and feel what the world is like from the other person’s point of view. Where does the spiked wheel of fortune cut into his or her heart? What would bring him or her relief, joy, at least a sense of not being alone?

We need compassion. The Talmud teaches that life is unbearable for the person who tries to feel for everyone. There are limits. But it is a good daily goal to ask ourselves ‘What kindness can I do? How can I avoid giving hurt?’ If we had such an attitude towards everyone we encountered, from our own family, to our neighbour, to the blackbird on the grass, we would be far closer to Isaiah’s vision of a world where ‘they neither hurt nor destroy in all God’s holy mountain’.

We need moral courage. We are not here to tolerate every outrage. History shows that if we fail to stand up for ourselves and others in the name of truth, integrity and justice, we too will be swept away on the tide of anger or the backwash of indifference.

We need faith. The mystics teach that God is everywhere and in all things. I am less interested in the infinite God in the unfathomable reaches of the universe. I care most about the presence of God here before me, in this particular person, her gifts, opportunities and hopes. I care most about the presence of God in the birds, in the deer who drink from this river, in the God of this life around me. For it is here, in this immediacy, that God commands me to do what is just and good.

We need faith in ourselves. This is not faith in our superiority; it is not arrogant or disparaging of others. On the contrary, it is the faith that despite our failures, limitations and confusion, there is within us light and strength, hope and love which glows from the sacred source of all life.

We are not here to let our souls be echo-chambers for hate or despair, but to transform them through courage, imagination and compassion, into healing.

 

Whom we fail to notice

I’m writing on Thursday evening 9th November, shortly before dark on the night which 79 years ago became Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. In her outstanding book Between Dignity and Despair, Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, Marion Kaplan documents unsparingly the anguish which followed. Thus, Lisa Brauer was forced to sell her home for a pittance:

It was so terribly difficult to destroy… what one had created with so much love. My children had played and laughed here and romped in the grass with the dogs…

Others suffered worse… as we well know.

What is less familiar is Kaplan’s frequent reference to what so many (though not all) non-Jewish Germans increasingly did not, or chose not, to see. Jews became invisible to former friends; children were ignored by their playmates, as if they had never existed. This was of course better than the attention of the Gestapo and their many supporters. But it hurt.

The issue of what people fail to see, of how oblivious they are capable of being to the realities which define the lives of those next door, disturbs Kaplan deeply.

It should disturb us too, and not solely because of the past. I am profoundly troubled by what we manage not to know about those around us today and what we choose not to see.

Many of the reasons are as ordinary as everyday life itself.

We don’t see because we’re too preoccupied with our own lives. If we turned to look too often at the challenging realities facing so many others, who knows if we would complete one single day’s worth of our plans for ourselves and our families.

We don’t see because we simply lack the relevant experience to have the insight.

We don’t see because we’re afraid to look. I often think of George Elliot’s remarkable observation that ‘if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’. Were all the anguish within a single square mile from our home suddenly to become audible, we would scarcely be able to bear the onslaught.

These matters are facts of daily life. The truth is that, while it is wrong to be persistently indifferent, we cannot possibly respond to everything which hurts those around us. We have to filter out most suffering if we are to respond in a meaningful way to any of it. That’s the best, often a very good best, which all but the most exceptional individuals can manage. And we need the resources of music, joy, friendship, and beauty to enable us to achieve that much.

What worries me more deeply, terrifies me at times, is the wilful incitement not to care. It’s what hatemongers do with such success.

It generally becomes evident first in the abuse of language. It is through words that we begin to ‘other’ the other, diminishing their dignity, marginalising and then deriding their right to our concern. Contempt for refugees, attacks on ‘foreigners’, resurgent white supremacism in the USA, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric and literature, – these are all key phases in process by which we become blind to the lives, and, in the worst case, eventually deaths, of those around us.

Spreading contempt for others is often the beginning of a profound crime, not only against those whose dignity and rights we thus deny, but also against ourselves. It’s betrayal of our own humanity too.

I’m writing these words partly because I love life and aspire to care about people, yet am increasingly aware of my ignorance of the realities of what so many not far from me, refugees, people who stop you in the street to ask for 20p towards a sandwich, face.

I’m writing them, too, because fear and hatred are on the rise in our world and on this inauspicious date history provides us with a severe and searching warning.

 

The God I do, the God I don’t, believe in

People talk to me about the God they don’t believe in. It doesn’t happen every day, but often enough for me to feel that theology is alive and well. Sometimes they also talk about the God in whom they do believe.

I find it easier to believe in a God who is than a God who does in history. Or perhaps the two are interconnected.

A God who does, who governs history, defeats tyranny, rebukes the unjust and intervenes with compassion on behalf of the millions at the mercy of those who exploit them, – I sometimes wish I believed in such a ‘hands-on’ God, but I can’t. If it were claimed that such a God is truly present and existent, all-knowing and all-powerful, but choosing for secret reasons not to intervene in the violent injustice of human history, I’d need to ask: ‘God, why? There’s too much wrong, too much cruelty for God to be a bystander. I would struggle to believe in a God who can, but chooses not to.

A God who is, who, in the words of the mystics ‘fills all the worlds and surrounds all the worlds’; who is the one spirit, the creative, animating vitality which flows through all being and all matter; whose living presence can be overheard in the sap of trees, seen in the rhythm of dawn and twilight, felt in the heart’s meditation; whose abode is all life and every human being, even though this sacred essence is so often ignored, oppressed, brutalised, ground down by life’s daily distractions into a silence which seems like absence, – in this God, in the God who fills all things, I deeply believe. Therefore, the core of life’s endeavour lies in the hearing, in the struggle for awareness, and in the effort to respond accordingly. Maybe that’s why the central Jewish meditation begins with the imperative ‘Hear!’ and moves on to the imperative, ‘Love!’

Thus the gap between the God who is and the God who does may not be so great after all. For the God who is can become the God who does in history through what we do, at least partly so.

The human task, the essence of our responsibility, is to listen to the voice of God, to hear the sacred in its semi-silent calling out, in the hopes of a child, in the pain of the bereaved, in the songs of the happy, in the cry of the injured, and to follow through on what this voice calls upon us to do.

To hear is to become responsible, and responsibility demands action. That is the essence of mitzvah, of feeling and knowing ourselves commanded to do what is just, compassionate and creative. In the famous rabbinic phrase, we are summoned in this manner to become ‘partners with God in creation’. It seems clear that if we refuse we will destroy the world.

This week we begin the story of Abraham. A striking midrash, or rabbinic exploration, contrasts him with Noah:

Rabbi Nehemia said: [Noah] is like a friend of the king who’s sinking in thick mud. The king saw him and said, ‘Rather than sinking in the mud, come and walk with me.’ Thus, Scripture says ‘Noah walked with God’.

What is Abraham like [to whom God said, ‘Walk before me’]? It’s like a friend who saw the king walking in a dark alleyway. Observing this, he lit up the king’s path through the windows. The king saw him and said, ‘Rather than via the window, come out and light the way before me.’     Bereshit Rabbah 30:10

Can we, too, help light a path through the byways of a world so often overshadowed with bewilderment and suffering, for God, and for all to whom God, like ourselves, has given the gift and illumination of life? That’s what it means to be a child of Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father. It’s what it means to be created in God’s image and to nurture God’s image and God’s presence in all the people and all the life around us.

 

Living in peace with creation

Only last week, in the beautiful poem with which the Hebrew Bible opens, we read of a God in love with the world. ‘God saw that it was good’ is the chorus line of creation.

Now, just one week’s reading later, God sees that the world is bad. Losing patience with humanity ‘whose every thought is evil’, God determines to destroy the earth. Only Noah is to survive, with the precious gene-pool of all living things sealed away in the floating bubble of the Ark.

Everyone knows the story. Except that we sing it from the point of view of the animals who ‘came in two by two’. What about those who didn’t? And the people? Were they all so awful that they really deserved to drown?

Afterwards, God is sorry. It’s history’s first ‘Never again!’ In soothing words, God ensures Noah that

All the days of the earth [the rhythm of] seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day-time and night-time shall never come to rest (Genesis 8:22)

It feels a little late. According to the Zohar, when Noah opens the portal of the Ark and looks out on the mud-flats of devastation where once there had been villages, fields and forests, he weeps. So Noah is sorry too.

What about us? Do we regret, or really care about, what we do to the earth?

The Torah tells us what was wrong before the flood: ‘All flesh had destroyed its way upon the earth’. But what does this broad indictment actually mean?

Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, explains: ‘even the cattle, wild animals and birds interbred,’ corrupting their species. Blame the animals, too.

Nachmanides (1194 – 1270) disagrees, maintaining that the plain meaning is that ‘all flesh’ refers only to humans. Our species did wrong, but all living beings had to pay the price.

This is disturbingly close to home. If we’re not disturbed, we’re probably missing the most important issue confronting our civilisation.

To return to the critical sentence: what might ‘destroyed its way’ mean to us? The Hebrew for ‘way’ derech, appears in another, much-loved verse about the Torah and wisdom as a whole:

Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.

Are our ways, towards each other, nature and life itself, ways of pleasantness and peace? If not, how can we make them so, urgently?

Every day I receive letters about cruelty, the callous neglect of human life and contempt for nature. Some provide distressingly explicit details about the deliberate, sadistic enjoyment of the pain suffered by animals, – and by people.

While I obviously abhor the particular abuses described, such communications leave me with a more difficult question: am I, too, complicit? Can I live without colluding with, or even relying on, the practice of cruelty and injustice to someone else, to some other living being, somewhere?

Can we live in ‘peace and pleasantness’ with each other and with nature?

No issue is more urgent

 

Will life harden, or soften, our hearts?

I often think of King Lear’s question. As he shelters in a hovel from the storm which rages not only among the elements but in his mind, he contemplates how cruel humanity can be and asks:

Is there any cause in nature makes these hard hearts?

It’s not really a question but a cry from the soul. No one around him attempts to respond.

I’m struck at least as frequently by the opposite thought: What makes so many hearts soft? That’s why I find the verse from this week’s Torah portion especially moving:

God will open your heart and the hearts of your children to love your God with all your heart and all your soul, for the sake of your life. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

Harder, softer; kinder, crueller – what happens to the heart as we progress through life? What about my own heart as I get older? Which way is it going?

I meet many people whose hearts have been opened by experience. For example:

-   ‘Those children I met in Greece have suffered so much. And they’re so lovely to each other. The older ones look out for the younger; when one of them is sad, the others comfort him. I can’t just leave them.’

-    ‘I wanted to have a meal with their family. I promised to pay, because they were very poor. Then I saw their meagre food, their water from a cistern of mud, where the children mess…. I’d rather go back to Africa to help my people and risk prison, than be a free here in London.’

I see kindness in little things too, all the time: ‘I’ll help’; ‘I can do that’. It’s just the shopping, or giving a friend’s child a lift. It’s just listening as someone shares the sorrow which has engulfed her. Except there’s no ‘just’; these are not responses to take for granted.

I sometimes think the answer to Lear’s question isn’t difficult. Life is often cruel and unjust. There are plenty of reason why, involuntarily perhaps, people protect their heart against the pain with which life pierces it. It’s far from incomprehensible that we should want to build a wall of self-protection and turn our heart into a fortress. Its foundations are made of evasions: ‘I can’t bear to see; I don’t want to feel’. Its fortifications are protected by dogmas: ‘Why should I care? Those aren’t my kind of people. They’re……’.

But in truth those walls are also often made of pain: It’ll hurt too much if I let down the drawbridge to my soul.

None of us knows in advance whether experience will make our heart softer as we grow older, or harder and more defended. That’s why the verse from the Torah is more of a prayer than a description: God, open my heart; awaken me to deeper solidarity and compassion; make me more human.

Unlike many prayers, the answer is all around us. It comes not as a voice from heaven, but in the innumerable voices of life, crying out from a child, from a person in grief, or lonely. God speak in them all, and in all of us. The answer to the prayer lies waiting in our own heart, in our response.

Eva Ehrenberg fled from Nazi Europe to Britain. She wrote poetry in both German and English. In a witty rhyme, she notes that when you boil eggs in their shells they get hard, but if you bake potatoes in their jackets and they go soft. She concludes:

In pain as all of us are oft, we too become in our skin or shell
Some of us hard and others soft. (with thanks to Professor Timms)

It takes courage and trust, as well as compassion, to let the heart grow soft; maybe that’s why we need God’s help to open it.

Saying thank you: the art of gratitude

‘Modeh ani lefanecha – I’m thankful before you’: these are the opening words of the day, the first prayer one’s supposed to say in those dim, semi-conscious moments when one’s not sure if it’s 4.00am or 7.00am, whether one’s woken too late and missed the alarm, or too early because the dog barked at a fox.

Modeh ani lefanecha – I’m grateful to you’: there’s an art to thankfulness. ‘You’ve forgotten the magic word’, people say to their children, probably thinking of ‘Please’. But ‘Thank you’ works at least as many wonders. And children aren’t the greatest culprits at failing to say it. Few of us are as generous at gratitude as we might, and ought, to be.

This week’s Torah portion describes the rite of Viddui Bikkurim, thanksgiving for the first fruits. In Temple times, villagers from across the Promised Land brought their best, first figs, dates, grapes and pomegranates to Jerusalem in decorated baskets and offered them before God with joy.

But being grateful isn’t a once-a-year affair. It’s an art, a grace, a wisdom at the heart of daily living.

Gratitude turns the ordinary into the special. It’s a way of appreciating every person, valuing the simplest object or experience. It’s the opposite of taking for granted, entitlement, greed and exploitation; of treating life as if it persistently fell below one’s expectations.

‘What have you learnt from your seventy-five years?’ an elderly lady was asked at a conference on spirituality in Edinburgh. ‘To be thankful’, she replied.

My teacher, Art Green, recently told me that if he had to reduce the entire morning service to just three minutes, he would still include Psalm 100, ‘a song of thanksgiving’. I’m thinking of him now, today, saying these words. His wife, whom he cared for with adoring dedication during all the years of her Parkinson’s, just passed away. Saying thank you isn’t always felicitously easy; it demands of us the good grace to let go, the capacity to be satisfied with life, to acknowledge that we’ve had our turn, and that we ourselves and those we love must leave the world for others, with generosity and forbearance.

Life doesn’t only rejoice the heart; it pierces it. Can I see the good, can I find blessing even then? Puzzling over the meaning of the word meodecha, generally translated as the injunction to love God ‘with all your might,’ the Mishnah (2nd century) plays alliteratively with the original Hebrew and demands: ‘With whatever measure of fortune God metes out to you, acknowledge and thank God most profoundly.’ It’s easier said than done.

I recall a senior consultant in palliative care saying: I’ve seen a child of nine approach death cheerfully content with what life had given him, and a man of ninety angry at what he felt he’d been denied.

I took a cup of tea with that lady at the seminar in Scotland. She said: ‘There’s a spiritual practice of never going to sleep before reflecting on five things for which you’re grateful’. I haven’t been consistent, but it’s a habit I’m trying to adopt.

Intriguingly, the Hebrew words modeh, ‘thanks’, and vidui, ‘confession’, derive from the same root. As we approach the New Year and Day of Atonement we’re called upon to improve our lives through repentance, confession and remorse. Viddui, confession, is the watchword of the season.

But it also means thankfulness, and there’s wisdom and humility in gratitude too. It’s at least as important to show those we love how much we appreciate them as it is to apologise for our faults.

There’s a beauty to people who know how to be thankful, even amidst distress. Their hearts are like a magnifying glass over life’s most ordinary details, a cup of tea, the sight of the moon, a moment of kindness. They teach us to notice, to appreciate; they turn life into grace.

On destruction and creation

I had a nightmare last night which concluded with a vision of our home smashed to pieces, debris all over the ruined garden, the animals dead, the family scattered and broken. I woke up not only frightened but with that sense of inner unease and dismay which dreams sometimes leave.

A few moments’ thought made me realise where this vision had come from: the terrible flooding in Texas; the appalling devastation caused by the monsoon in Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; the burnt-out homes and lives destroyed at Grenfell; the hurt and pain I often witness close at hand. I am sure everyone knows the details, but

My colleague Julie Schonfeld, the Executive Director of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, wrote:

Our hearts are breaking over the circumstances of those affected by Hurricane Harvey. Congregation Beth Yeshurun of Houston, one of the flagship Conservative synagogues in North America, took on very heavy flooding throughout the building. The homes of at least 500 congregant households were flooded.

Houses, schools, churches, mosques, factories are ruined, leaving hundreds of thousands exposed to the health dangers which threaten to follow: “From the bacteria, viruses, and fungi harbored in floodwaters to a potentially staggering mental health toll inflicted on those hardest hit by Harvey, the risks are expected to be great.” (The Houston Chronicle)

Shocking as this is, the flooding in South east Asia is on a different scale. A third of Bangladesh is under water; Nepal, significant swathes of India and now of Pakistan are devastated. Children are particularly affected. As schools close, so pupils lose key periods of their education. “The longer children are out of school following a disaster the less likely it is that they’ll ever return. That’s why it’s so important that education is properly funded in this response.” (Rafay Hussain, Save the Children)

I remember at the close of my nightmare trying to find the family to talk about rebuilding. Soon after I woke up I found myself thinking about the words of Rebbe Shalom Noach of Slonim, which we put near the front of our Shivah book of prayers in times of mourning:

A broken heart
must always belong to the world of building
not to the world of destruction

I thought then of how rich the language of creativity is in the liturgy: borei – create; yotzer – fashion; bonei – build; oseh – make. From the intimate domain of the heart to the vast creation of the universe, – with homes, communities and the city of Jerusalem, symbolically representing all human habitation, in between – God’s creativity, with our own creative capacities in partnership, pervades our prayers and hopes.

The power of destruction is fierce in nature and, tragically, in humanity. But let the courage, determination, generosity and imagination of those who strive to build and create be greater!


Julie Schonfeld referred me to the relief fund established by The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston to which local colleagues have asked people to donate.I will send a contribution on behalf of the synagogue.

The DEC (the 10 leading UK charities) will have appeals for South East Asia. See https://www.dec.org.uk/

Looking for God with the eagles and otters

I’m writing on the night train home from Scotland, trying to garner in my mind’s eye and in my heart the wonderful sights of mountains and eagles, mist and rain, waterfalls and sea shores, and the sunset quenched in the flaming red water; and to preserve in the soles of my feet the sensations of scrambling on grass, rock and heather; of walking, running and climbing through the thick highland mud.

I had no shofar with me to blow on the first day of Elul, but instead stood and prayed next to the hill-wise sheep with their impressive curled horns. It is of them and their glens that I will think on Rosh Hashanah when I say the blessing and endeavour to listen as deeply as I can to the sound of the shofar. Their hills are my personal Sinai, my place of revelation, where the wordless utterance of God says simply and constantly, ‘I am’.

I haven’t forgotten during this fortnight in the Highlands that the world is complex, full of violence, pain, alienation, unresolved conflicts and millions of innocent people who suffer for what they have not done. I spend most of my life inside the circumference of such concerns.

But all of us need to charge our heart and soul, to fill them with beauty, grace and inspiration so that we have the strength of spirit and the resilience to negotiate with courage and loving kindness the struggles of our own life and those of others. I often ask people when they turn to me in times of distress: ‘What nourishes your spirit?’ Perhaps it is music, prayer, poetry, nature, walking the dog, the companionship of those friends to whom you don’t have to tell everything because they know and understand. Then I say to them, ‘Whatever happens, take the time to restore your soul’.

Elul and Tishrei are the months of the beautiful 27th Psalm, ‘On your part does my heart say: “Seek my Face.”’ The heart, teaches the Zohar, is God’s temple within each person, God’s sacred abode in each and every life. It longs for its home with God, and, like a satnav to a different dimension, tries to help us locate it here on earth.

Libbi, our elder daughter has always loved otters. The Isle of Mull has at least one otter family for every mile of its 360 miles of coastline, so at dusk we went down to the shore to see if we could find one of their havens. We sat in silence as the twilight deepened in to darkness. We listened to the washing of the waves against the rocks, the constant variations in the movement of the ripples of the water, the seaweed, the boats moored a small distance from the shore. We found not a single otter.

Instead a deeper presence found us, calmed and silenced us, and without words reminded us that the world is full of the presence of God. For a moment, we were privileged to enter malchut shamayim, the sovereign domain of heaven.

 

Where comfort lies?

I am always glad when Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation, arrives. The bleak fast of the Ninth of Av has passed and we move from contemplating destruction to hope and comfort.

Comfort, O comfort my people; speak to the heart of Jerusalem   Isaiah 40:1

But where does comfort come from? Experience as a community rabbi has made me wary of trite comments like ‘time is a healer’. Time pushes us by the shoulder into the bewildering future. But it rarely fills in the holes in the heart through which, mercifully, painfully, those we have lost make unpredictable reappearances in our consciousness. No one lives only in the present.

In the wider frame of history, what is destroyed is rarely speedily rebuilt. The impact of persecutions, wars, disasters, marks those affected forever, and often defines the lives of their children, even their children’s children. Violence hasn’t vanished from the world, or racism, anti-Semitism and hatred gone away.

So where is comfort?

I saw a sign stuck on a lamppost ‘Ich liebe mein Leben’, ‘I love my life,’ with a small red heart underneath. Thank God, the love of life has tenacious powers. Like the pale leaves emerging in April from the thick, sticky buds of a chestnut tree after a winter of dormancy, the will to live reawakens in the human heart.

Like the wild flowers that grew in the bomb craters of London after the war, life has extraordinary resilience. It finds a foothold once again, not the same as it once was, but life nonetheless.

Destruction is powerful. But creation and creativity have – so far – found the subtle, visceral, tenacious resources to fight back:

However many rings of pain the night welds around me,
The opposing pull is stronger, the passion to break away.   Boris Pasternak

Yet, as life rushes on, what about the wounds left behind?

The issue takes me to the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and his desire to question the Messiah. But where should he find him? ‘Among the poor at the gates of the great city’, Elijah informs him, referring to Rome, recently responsible for the sacking of Jerusalem. The rabbi promptly travels to the great metropolis, where he sees a host of destitute people taking off their bandages and gazing at their injuries. The Messiah, however, removes only one bandage at a time before hastily replacing it, saying ‘Maybe I am needed’.

I’ve met a lot of people like that. Sometimes they come up to me and say, ‘Remember me when you hear about someone else going through what I’ve been through’. It may be grief, depression, illness, the sudden loss of their job. They have turned their wounds into ‘Maybe I am needed’.

Nervous before the start of the Royal Parks half marathon last year, I asked the runners waiting next to me why they were doing the race:

‘For the Alzheimer’s Society, in memory of my mum’
‘For Cancer Research, because of what happened to my brother’

They too have turned their sorrow into ‘Maybe I am needed’.

Such people are my heroes, healers, redeemers, the rebuilders of Jerusalem.

Much as I sometimes wish to, I don’t think I believe in a single personal magical Messiah who’ll descend from heaven on a long rope into the maelstrom of history and solve all its ills.

But I believe in the redemptive spirit in humanity, within each of us, and in our capacity, with each other’s help, to try to turn pain into healing, destruction into rebuilding, grief into consolation, mourning into hope.

Causeless hatred – and its causes

The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans:

‘because there was gratuitous hatred during that period’. Talmud, Yoma 9b

As the Fast of the 9th of Av approaches, the day in the Jewish year in which we are asked to reflect on destruction and destructiveness in our world, I find myself puzzling over what that ‘hatred’ is, and how we can stop hating.

‘Gratuitous hatred’, sinat chinam in Hebrew, may be defined as the opposite of righteous indignation. If the latter is anger directed at removing a wrong or injustice in the world, the former is pointless rage and recrimination, justified by no cause.

Sinat chinam has both a personal and a political dimension.

On the personal level, I don’t think gratuitous hatred means hatred which has come from nowhere and has no source. Anger almost always has its pretexts; the mind is liable to hover over them until they become an ingrained bitterness of the soul: ‘I was neglected’ ‘I was treated unfairly’ ‘Life never gave me what I deserved’. Ground can always be found, or invented, for such thoughts.

‘Gratuitous hatred’ draws attention to their futility. Where do they take us, if not back to our own mental prisons of grudges and resentments? As Nelson Mandela famously said:

As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom I knew that if I didn’t leave bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

None of us wants to go through life with part of our heart in an internal solitary cell of our own making. Once one has taken two or three turns in the labyrinth of resentment, it is extremely hard to find one’s way out. We need kindness, from ourselves as much as from others, inner understanding and self-discipline to help us.

On the political level, gratuitous hatred means wantonly or ignorantly engaging in disputes which could and should have been avoided.

This is probably what the Talmud means by the phrase. The wars against Rome were driven by extremists. The zealots who eventually burnt the food supplies in the besieged city of Jerusalem and forced its citizens to fight to the hopeless end, refused to listen to moderating voices.

The heirs of sinat chinam today are all who practise a politics of extremism and rejection and all of us who demonise others. The healers are those who practise the difficult, dangerous, often seemingly futile art of building bridges with the fragile armoury of words and relationships; with tentative sensitivity to how the world may feel like to others…all who reach out to care for others with humility, courage and faith.

I believe causeless hatred also describes pain and anger we end up provoking without even thinking about it. In a news report from the civil war in Yemen, Orla Guerin interviewed a family whose son had lost both legs in a bomb, then spoke to a local journalist, who asked: ‘Why does the west arm Saudi Arabia? You are people who believe in humanistic values, so why do you leave us to suffer?’ Sixty per cent of the population of Yemen don’t know where their next food is coming from.

No doubt the politics are complex. But it is a fact that, indirectly and without wishing to do so, we are all implicated in vast suffering in many parts of the world.

It is not pleasant to face a date established in the Jewish calendar to ponder the terrible exiles and persecutions we as a people have been forced to undergo, and to think about why there is so much hatred across the globe. But the day is important. If we refuse to visit the angriest, most hurt places in our hearts, our history and in the world, we will not be able to bring healing.

It is only out of understanding that redemption is born. Hence the teaching that it is on the Fast of the 9th of Av that the Messiah is born. This may be understood metaphorically as the desire and determination in each of us to rebuild and restore creation through justice, compassion and love.

Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it. Martin Luther King

 

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