We are about to conclude the saddest and most fragile time of the Jewish calendar, the nine days leading up to the ninth of Av. On that Hebrew date, so many horrific events took place affecting Jewish history- the destruction of two temples, the massacre at Beitar and the ensuing exile, the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the outbreak of World War 1… It behooves us therefore to reflect on what the sages suggest may be the underlying spiritual roots. First and foremost is something called, ‘Sinat Chinam,’ Hatred without cause. And the modern day sages and mystics in particular tell us that the primary resolution is ‘Ahavat Chinam,’ Love without reason.
These two extremes don’t manifest out of the blue; there is a process that we need to look at, in order to correct. I believe there is a contemporary climate of extreme reactivity that may help shed light on this process. Interesting how in one of the hottest summers on record, people have become so polarized. Some forms of polarization can lead to chasms of divisiveness. Furthermore, this tendency may cause individuals to be seen as one dimensional rather than as the Talmud puts it, entire worlds.
A recent discussion on NPR triggered my thinking about the situation that, though we may live in a technological global village, it seems that more people are choosing to live in like-minded silos of particular outlooks, than they did in the past. This is of course equally, if not more, true in parts of the Jewish world. Rather than living in environments of diverse social, cultural, political, and religious groups, getting along by agreeing to disagree, and finding common interests and concerns in other areas, people are choosing to place themselves in a net of very similar populations, rather than a network of people with varied interests.
One observation of the study reported by NPR, was that, in diverse environments, people naturally tended to be drawn to and feel compatible with some folk rather than others. Still, those who mingled in closer quarters with groups of different concerns, rarely ‘de-humanized’ any one type. In contrast, in the more homogenous populations, the in-group was liked, whereas the ‘out group’ was not only less liked, but actively disliked. Once the dislike became solidified, there was a more frequent tendency toward generalization from the specific point of disagreement, to bleeding into other questionable areas, to putting down the whole person, or even the whole population of ‘the other.’
What can counteract this extension of negative judgement? I believe it’s a parallel outflow and amplification of positive judgement…what Rebbe Nachman calls, finding the good points in each person. The underlying premise is that the good points reflect the true essence of the soul, whereas the negative aspects are more external aberrations. Thus when the sages say that unconditional love is the cure for reactive hatred, the above mentioned process may clarify how both the hatred and the love happens. It is not an instantaneous progression but rather a gradual expansion of one attitude or its contrast.
The third Chabad rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, writes about this dynamic at length and makes an interesting observation. He explains that we tend to get upset when others point out our faults, even though we ourselves don’t deny we have them. The difference is that we accept ourselves, together with our faults, whereas we feel others are rejecting or dissing us completely, because of the faults they perceive in us. Again, he stresses, the solution is to see and embrace the whole person, warts and all, because we need to realize that there is more to the other than the specific, perceptible faults. There is a well-known source for this idea in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. Yehoshua Ben Prachya says: ‘Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person in the scale of merit.’ An alternate way of reading the last part can be: ‘Judge THE WHOLE PERSON in the scale of merit.’ In other words, if you are to look at the entire person in all their complexity and life experiences, you would realize that most people are trying their best to do what’s right. Even if they are deliberately doing wrong, they must have some other redeeming features that justify their existence or indicate the pressures they are under.
Another relevant teaching from Pirkei Avot: ‘Don’t judge your friend until you reach his/her place.’ You don’t have to condone their actions, but don’t assume that you would do better, given their lot in life. Especially if you can feel the empathy of being part of the Jewish Mishpocha family, you won’t reject them completely. I once taught a fifth grade class about the four species for Sukot. I told them that the arava, the willow, represented the Jew who has neither taste nor fragrance, meaning neither good deeds nor learning. When I asked why join them to the mitzvah, a young Israeli boy replied with the sweetest accent, ‘Vell you don’t trow someone out who’s in your family, just because dey are doing something bad.’
In an even deeper way, on a soul level, they are actually part of you. The mystics tell us that the Shechina, the Divine Presence is considered the repository for the roots of all souls. In that ‘planter’ we are indeed all connected. And if we wish the Divine flow of blessing to water that vessel, that receptacle, we must feel love for that ‘larger part’ of ourselves. Thus Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari HaKadosh, instituted the prelude statement before Morning Prayer: ‘Behold I accept upon myself the commandment of ‘Love your friend as yourself.’
Of course there are extreme exceptions that the Torah recognizes we need to avoid, contain, and protect especially our children from, but in the ordinary encounters in life, one rarely meets someone completely dangerous or evil, even if they seem to conflict with all your values. There is a story of someone who went to a rabbi complaining about another person in the congregation who seemed to espouse extremely radical views. The rabbi said, ‘Have you ever come across even two people who look exactly alike?’ And does that bother you that no two people look the same? When the man said ‘Of course not,’ the rabbi replied, ‘So why should it bother you so much that not everyone agrees with you?’ If we are honest with ourselves, are there people we shun or even cringe inside, just because they don’t agree with our viewpoints?
So if seeing the bad and seeing the good involve a similar process of pre-judging from one difference of opinion, it shouldn’t be so hard to switch tracks. The challenge is that seeing the bad is so much easier, more instinctive, and sometimes just plain fun. Especially in our society and during this election year, the game of ‘who is badder’ is the grist of daily conversation. In a world where gossiping is seen as a legitimate social bonding ritual, it is more difficult to focus on the good, both in interactions and in our own minds, both with others and with ourselves. But that’s where the positive shifts need to start. One of the many things I love about living in Boulder is the fluidity of interpersonal relationships between different religious denominations and affiliations. In fact, visitors say that the Jewish community can be a model of cooperation for other cities.
But there is always room for improvement. If we choose to associate ONLY with people who share our perspectives- whether political, aesthetic, or even religious, it’s like we’re surrounding ourselves with static mirrors, rather than with, bejeweled, multifaceted living beings- people for whom open, caring and sensitive interactions can provide mutual growth and enrichment. This is the Jewish way to bring about unity and redemption, and give infinite nachat- pleasure- to the all-inclusive silo of the Shechina who is the mother of us all.