Tonight begins Tisha B’AV (the 9th of Av), however the holiday will be commemorated this year starting after Shabbat, as mournful holidays with fasting are not held on Shabbat. Tisha B’av commemorates the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples, the Rabbis teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “Sinat Chinam, the sin of baseless hatred against one’s fellow.” In trying to understand what this truly means I came upon the teaching that baseless hatred is not just hating someone for no reason at all; it is the surety with such confidence that you are correct that you raise your righteous anger against those who oppose you. Because of your confidence in the justice of your cause or stance, you blind yourself to the humanity of those on the other side. In this teaching I see the tribalism of today.
I have read that even our symbols have become triggering; the confederate flag seems an obvious trigger of fear or anger. But I find myself even concerned when I see a car (usually a truck) driving past with the American flag blowing behind it. I question not the patriotism of that act, but if that patriotism has room for my view of American values. And I know that when Trump supporters see “Love concurs hate” lawn signs, this triggers their anger as well. And I think rightly so. What they read is an accusation of being a hateful and hatemongering person; that would make any normal person feel defensive. I cannot honestly say that my friends on the left find love for their political enemies on the right. So I wonder what might the future hold?
Last weekend I was in Washington, DC with my family and we went to the MLK memorial. For those who haven’t been, on the walls behind the statue of Dr. King are quotes from his speeches and writings. Brianna wanted to read them, so I walked over with her. We read,
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Strength to Love, 1963.
And this made me think of where we stand in our tribalistic moment on the eve of Tisha B’av. How can I love those I disagree with or better yet who are so clearly wrong and whose wrong is actually evil!? How did Dr. King love those who jailed him, those who beat him? Those who turned fire hoses and dogs upon him and his fellow protesters? Is it a Jewish notion to love one’s enemy? I think it is not, and yet the first half of his statement must also be considered. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” We KNOW this; this is not opinion or even metaphorical aspiration, no matter the fake news and false narratives. I think we might all be able to agree that in fact one can only change darkness into light with the introduction of light, be it sunlight, or flashlight, electrical or spark of fire. This is simply true.
In my righteous indignation it feels so good to meet anger with anger. It feels weak and wrong not meet them tit for tat, blame for blame, pain for pain. But what does that do to us? What does that do to ME? Where does that leave us as a country and community? If introducing light is the only way to dispel the darkness, then we must find some way to introduce love into our blinded righteous indignation.
Why bother? They started this. Well, our Rabbis teach that this form of moral certitude was the downfall of Jewish people. It lead to the destruction of the Temple and the Nation-state; it lead to nearly 2000 years of exile, the expulsion of our people, the enslavement of our people, and the continued persecution of our people over the years of living in galute, the diaspora. This seems a very serious warning. WE ARE IN TROUBLE! Whichever side you are on I say to you, THEY may be wrong, but how are YOU going to act? Perhaps love is too much, but can you see even your enemies as humans? Can you see them also as being made in the image of God? Can you see that even in their wrongness, they are deserving of compassion?
Do not let your righteousness blind you to the nature of us versus them. Allow yourself to see human beings on the other side of an issue. Whichever side, they may be wrong headed, they may even keep their wrong opinions when the facts are so obviously and carefully argued; but perhaps if you can find compassion for the blindness they have, perhaps it will crack the mask of the argument they have constructed in which you are the enemy, undeserving of justice and mercy.
I fear we are in a cataclysmic moment. Both sides speak of fighting for the soul of the nation. We are truly fighting over what “American Values” mean, and what values Americans share. And I fear we are in that moment, like the Missouri compromise before the Civil War, when any compromise no matter how terrible felt like a better idea than actually going to war. I don’t know which compromises must be made and which cannot be abided, but I do wonder if we can find a way to remove our own blinders, find a way to see the other as human too, and avert war, avert the dissolution of our Union, avert the exile of our people, (which people? The ones who lose). In this time of righteous anger there are winners and losers. Perhaps if we can permit ourselves to be righteous but also human, perhaps we can find a win-win, or at least a situation where people keep some dignity while they loose.
You may feel I’m speaking hyperbolically, that the world we are living in is divided but not endangered, I hope that you are right. What I know is that while fighting for justice, we must not lose sight of the human beings we fight against. They may be wrong but they are human, and our fellow citizens. If you support those in power, please help them remember the power they hold is over human beings deserving of compassion. Help them remember their own humanity can be blinded by their fight for righteousness. Please remember that winning might feel good, but the country as a whole does better when most of us are winning, not just the few currently in power.
If you support those not currently in power, or the opposition, remember that it is even easier to be blinded by being an underdog. But their power over you should not prevent you from seeing their humanity. If you are fighting for a just and equal society, that must include justice and dignity even for those you disagree with.
As we turn to commemorate a destructive moment in Jewish history, I will also remind you that out of the ashes of the Temple came Rabbinic Judaism, and the traditions of human interpretation, prayer, study and what we call Judaism today (with all its diverse ways of practice). So, I have hope. I have hope we will find a way to light the darkness, I have hope we can become more self-aware of our own blinders and biases and I have hope that even if things get worse before they get better, I have hope that something better will be possible even after; but I pray we can avoid the destruction first.
On our way to the MLK monument we walked passed the Korean War Memorial, where it is inscribed “Freedom isn’t Free;” and Brianna asked, not for the first time, “If no one wins in war, why do we fight them?” In honor of our fallen soldiers being commemorated there, I reminded her that there are some ideas worth dying for. But I surely pray that we can find a way through this fight for freedom and justice without the lose-lose of a war.
Cantor Joanna Alexander