Parshas Devarim [Shabbos Chazon] (5769)
The famous and oft-quoted passage (especially around the Three Weeks) in the Talmud in Yoma 9b states: “Why was the Second Beis Hamikdash (Temple) destroyed? Because of sinas chinam, senseless hatred of one Jew for another.”
In essence, we are being taught here by our Sages a powerful idea - that the reason why our ancestors who had been living in the Land of Israel over 2000 years ago were persecuted and killed and the Temple burned to the ground, paving the way for the exile and wandering of their children – all of us – from place to place all the way up until today, is all due to the fact that we simply could not get along with each other. And when we correct this problem and learn how to love each other as we should, we will merit seeing the Messiah who will once again bring us back to our rightful home, the Land of Israel.
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Yet it always bothered me when I heard this Talmudic statement. After all, have the majority of Jews really hated each other so much - and so senselessly - throughout the centuries and millennia? Have we not gotten along with each other relatively well over the many years of our exile outside of Israel? Okay, maybe we do have fights and issues with each other every so often – but, hey, we are family, and that’s what family members do – even though they still love each other.
So what exactly do the Sages mean when they say that there was – and still is – too much “senseless hatred” among our people? Are we really that bad?
Rabbi Yehonasan Eibeschutz (1690-1764), in his seminal work Yaaros Devash (Sermon #10), explains what the Sages meant by “senseless hatred” in a radically different way. He writes (my translation from the original Hebrew):
“See how great is the sin of ‘sinas chinam’ (senseless hatred), and how much good is held back from us on its account. Due to our great sins, this ‘disease’ has become widespread among our people – that is not to say, Heaven forbid, that [each Jew] doesn’t love his friend [in material ways]. For if [his fellow Jew] is in distress, or if the government falsely charges his fellow Jew, all of Israel are quick to help him using all their money and resources … and if one gets sick, all are praying [for him] and visiting him … is there a greater display of love and brotherhood than this? …This is our glory among all the nations [around us] who praise how we take care of our fellow Jew. However, this is only ‘ahavas ha-guf’ - love and concern for [our fellow Jew’s] material and physical needs. But when it comes to ‘ahavas ha-nefesh’ – love and concern for [our fellow Jew’s] spiritual needs, which is the primary love, a love which is eternal and which will remain forever … this [type of love] is rare to find among our people. For if a Jew sees his friend following a wayward path, he won’t [bother to] reproach him or tell him that he is headed in a wrong direction … and if he sees his friend talking in the synagogue during the services, he doesn’t [care] to show him the error of his ways … Woe is to us … is there a greater ‘hatred’ than this? He sees his friend drowning in the river and he doesn’t care to do a thing?! This was the ‘sinas chinam’ which existed during the Second Temple Period …
What the Rabbi is saying is so true, and especially today. I mean, look at all the amazing philanthropy that goes in Jewish communities worldwide. For example, Jews are counted among the biggest givers of charity in North America, way out of proportion to their numbers. When it comes to taking care of our sick brothers and sisters, we’ll even donate whole wings of hospitals. When our IDF soldiers are in enemy hands, we will spare no effort or expense to try and save them. We in the Jewish community feed the homeless, and we support programs for the physically handicapped – and so many other important causes - like nobody else does. It truly is our glory among the nations, just like the Rabbi said.
But that is all ahavas ha-guf – i.e. taking care of our Jewish brothers’ and sisters’ physical, material and psychological needs. But what about their spiritual needs? What about the fact that the majority of Jews in North America today are totally ignorant of their Jewish heritage? Did you know that in the USA one out of every two marriages (!) is to a non-Jew? We are literally intermarrying and assimilating ourselves out of existence! But with the exception of a few organizations that are busy trying to stem the tide of Jewish ignorance, apathy and assimilation through outreach and education (and which, sadly, are under-funded by the Jewish “establishment” so that they have to spend half their time trying to make payroll) – nobody is doing anything about it! What happened to ahavas ha-nefesh - taking care of our fellow Jews’ neshamos (souls) – why are so few concerned with this primary love, a love which has eternal ramifications?!
The period we are now in – known as the “Nine Days” (which started on Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the Hebrew month of Av, and which ends on Tishah B’Av, the ninth day of Av, a fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple and our exile from the Land of Israel) – is a good time for all of us to think about our fellow Jews living around the block and around the world – and to commit to loving them from now on in all ways, both material and spiritual.
Let’s take our lead from that great “Lover of Israel”, Aaron, the High Priest, whose yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) was this Wednesday, Rosh Chodesh Av, and about whom the great Hillel writes in Ethics of our Fathers (1:12): “Be like students of Aaron – love peace, pursue peace, love people, and draw them close to the Torah”.