Some time ago, at a Rosh Chodesh prayer service at the Kotel, things got ugly.
As they had been doing for nearly 25 years, a group of women from a range of Jewish backgrounds, known as the Women of the Wall, gathered at the Kotel to pray the special morning prayers of Rosh Chodesh. This group included women wearing tallitot and tefillin, and reading from a Torah scroll. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews (a label that needs defining beyond the scope of this article) arrived to protest, and things got out of hand.
A group of my students from Yeshivat Orayta happened to be at the Kotel and were caught in the middle of it, later describing to me a horrendous scene which included Jews throwing chairs, spitting at their fellow Jews, and even pummeling and knocking down a policewoman. While the group of Jews displaying such violence was certainly a small fringe element, one wonders how we have arrived at such a sorry state of affairs.
This week’s portion contains the story of Korach’s rebellion against Moshe and Aaron.
Korach, Moshe’s first cousin, challenged his authority, claiming that the appointment of Elitzafan (another cousin, from a younger brother than Korach’s dad) as tribal prince was nepotism, and not the word of G-d. Ultimately, Korach questioned Moshe’s motives, for which he was punished, along with many of his followers, by being swallowed up by the earth in what may have been the first recorded earthquake.
There is a principle that when G-d metes out punishment, it is done “measure for measure” (middah ke’neged middah) with a punishment chosen to mirror the crime, thus making it clear why the perpetrator is being punished. So why was an earthquake G-d’s choice of punishment?
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Jewish tradition teaches that just as Korach and his followers opened their mouths to speak ill over G-d’s prophet Moshe, the earth in turn swallowed them and silenced them forever.
This concept is found often; another example was the story of Joseph. The Torah tells us that Joseph slandered his brothers by telling his father Yaakov of their misdeeds. Rashi (Genesis 37:2) says Joseph said the brothers ate unslaughtered meat, degraded the maidservants’ children by calling them slaves and that they were suspect of licentious behavior (infidelity). Joseph was punished measure for measure: The brothers dipped his coat in the blood of a slaughtered goat (showing they did indeed slaughter their animals before eating them), he was sold into slavery, and he was jailed when his master’s wife attempted to seduce him.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, in his Sichot Mussar, points out that middah ke’neged middah is less about punishment and more about a message. Every event that affects our lives really carries a message for us; we need only be sensitive enough to recognize it.
As an example, the Baal Shem Tov points out that if we see a person desecrating Shabbat, it does not mean we are supposed to scream “Shabbos” at them, it means there is a flaw in our own Shabbat. And if this is true on an individual level, it is certainly so on a national level.
I recall in the summer of 2005, during the Israeli disengagement from Gush Katif, feeling that if Israeli soldiers could be expelling 8,000 Jews from their homes, resulting in terrorists dancing on the rooftops of burning synagogues, something was dreadfully wrong. The Hebrew word for the disengagement was hitnatkut, literally meaning to be cut off. Perhaps we underwent the terrible events of that dreadful summer because we were, and in many ways still are, cut off from each other.
Here in Israel, many of us live in our island communities, religious or secular, Chassidic or Litvish, right wing or left, and as a result have very little to do with those who are outside of our comfort zone. How many religious Jews (whatever THAT term means) who live in settlements in Yehuda or Shomron have close secular friends who live in Tel Aviv? And how many modern Orthodox Jews (another label needing much more of an explanation) have close friends in the ultra-Orthodox world? How many of us even have healthy avenues to dialogue with each other?
Indeed, the Talmud tells us that the second Temple was destroyed, along with a sizable portion of the Jewish community due to sinat chinam (baseless hatred). But a normal person does not hate someone for no reason; he does have a reason — so it’s not really baseless hatred, is it?
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The Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berllin, rosh yeshiva of the famed Yeshivat Volozhin in the mid- to late-1800s) suggests, in his introduction to Genesis, that sinat chinam refers to someone who hates his fellow Jew because that other person’s pathway to a relationship with G-d is different from his own.
When you hate someone because of the way they choose to practice their Judaism, however different from your own, and regardless of whether it is halachically (traditionally) correct, then that is sinat chinam. Interestingly, the Netziv suggests this leads to the destruction of the land of Israel and the forfeiting of a Jewish connection to the land, which may well be what was really happening in the summer of 2005, and if the events of a few weeks ago are any indication, we are still struggling with the same issue.
Perhaps, when we read of all the dangers that abound today for the State of Israel: a nuclear Iran, missiles in the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon, dangerous trends on our borders with Syria and Egypt and so on, we need to look inwards and not only outwards towards our dangerous neighbors.
And if hating our fellow Jew for his or her different opinions leads to the destruction of the land, then learning to love each other even whilst disagreeing on how Judaism asks us to relate to G-d, is the solution.
This column originally appeared in 2013.