Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
We live in a complicated world, where senseless hate and violence are becoming ‘normalized’ and fear of ‘others’ is reaching new heights. This weekend, in Torah and Jewish observance, our tradition compels us to confront hate and fear though our weekly Torah portion, a special Shabbat called Shabbat Hazon, and Tisha B’Av.
Shabbat Hazon (the Sabbath of Vision) is named for its haftarah, in which Isaiah envisions the coming destruction of the First Temple. In our Torah portion, Devarim, Moses recounts how 10 of the 12 spies sent to scout out the Promised land, returned with an evil report rooted in fear of the ‘other.’ According to Midrash, God responded to the weeping of the Israelites by saying: “You want to weep? I’ll give you a reason to weep today.” The rabbis teach that this happened on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), the most grief-ridden day in the Jewish calendar. Tisha B’Av was the day of multiple calamities throughout our history, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. On Tisha B’Av we mourn our losses, and struggle to learn from them. For example, the rabbis teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam (unjustified hatred). Our hatred for each other caused such divisions that our community became an easy target for the Romans to conquer.
Today we seem as divided as ever by our fears and our hatreds, and the violence which can result. El Paso, Dayton, Poway, Pittsburgh, Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine and more. Some say that the cause is mental illness. However, the vast majority of people who suffer from mental illness do not commit mass murder, nor do they ever consider doing such a thing. Some say the cause is guns. However, the vast majority of legal gun owners do not commit mass murder, nor do they ever consider doing such a thing.
It is true that both mental illness and the easy availability of military-style rifles are a common thread for most of the people who have committed these heinous crimes – and we need to address them both. However, neither of these approaches, by themselves, will solve the problem. As Rabbi Michael Gold teaches, we must look at the underlying hatreds and fears that lead to this horribly repeated cycle of violence.
Hatred and fear go hand in hand. They drive the agendas of White supremacist groups who have a long list of enemies from immigrants to Jews. They eat away at those who feel victimized or bullied by the people around them (such as the Parkland shooter). Hatred and fear are the primary motivators behind both Islamist extremism and domestic terrorism. Yet it does not stop there. We live in a society rife with racism, homophobia and many other hatreds and fears of ‘other.’ Indeed, Rabbi Gold notes its existence “on college campuses among those who start out hating Israel and end up hating Jews.”
At least in theory (if our politics allowed it) we could shut down neo-Nazi groups, get better background checks on guns, reinstate the ban on semi-automatic weapons, and improve public mental health treatment. However, we all know that would require congress to somehow function across party lines.
What, then, can we do to stop all this hatred and fear? Begin with ourselves. We can fight the hatred and fear in our own hearts. How many of us fear or hate others within our own community? Be honest with yourself. What do you think of the ‘other?’ What do you think of people who have different colored skin, or speak other languages, or have different beliefs than you? What do you think of people who are either poorer or wealthier than you? What do you think of people who have a different sexuality than you, or who do not fit into either male or female genders? Here’s a really tough one, even if you think you are doing well so far. Regardless of whether you are a conservative or a liberal, what is your general feeling about the ‘other’ party? How strong is your disdain, distrust, fear, anger and/or hatred for them?
In Devarim, this week’s Torah reading, Moses begins a series of speeches all designed to help us to survive as one people in the Promised Land. During Shabbat Hazon and Tisha B’Av, we can mourn not only the violent tragedies which our people suffered in history, but we can also mourn the violent tragedies of this past week in El Paso and Dayton. And we can use these days to examine our own hearts as we determine to fight hatred and fear wherever they dwell.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras