Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Erev Yom Kippur

I don’t know the reason why Rome fell. I don’t the reason why the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire, the British Empire or even the Soviet Union fell. To be more precise, I don’t know the reasons they told themselves their great empires collapsed. What I do know is the reason we told ourselves as Jerusalem fell and the Temple was destroyed first by the Babylonians and then 650 years later by the Romans.

The year: 586 B.C.E. Imagine yourself sitting atop the roof of your home in Jerusalem watching as the Babylonian army breeches the city wall, sacks and loots first your home, and then God’s home, the sacred Temple built by Solomon. Gazing at the destruction about to engulf you a verse from Psalm 22:2 comes to mind: אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

See yourself now sitting in exile on the banks of the Tigris. The head of your community rises and expounds, echoing the message of the great Biblical prophets: “God did not forsake us, rather we caused the destruction of our Temple, we caused our own exile because we sinned. What were our sins: עבודה זרה, גלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים - idolatry, sexual impropriety and the spilling of innocent blood.” And so you and your community make a vow: “If we are allowed to return from exile, reestablish our Temple and our lives, we will change our ways and teach our children to avoid these sins through which we brought destruction upon our heads.”

A few generations pass. Picture yourself looking down from above as you see your descendants return from exile, rebuild the Temple and reestablish Jewish life in Jerusalem and Israel. Look with pride at how your children’s children’s children seem to remember the lesson you taught and avoid those 3 great sins that brought destruction so many years before: idolatry, sexual impropriety and the spilling of innocent blood.

A more generations pass and you again look down to check in on your descendants. There you see your, well who knows how many greats, grandchild sitting on top of a roof, just like the one you sat on, watching the Roman army breech the city wall, sack and loot first her home, and then God’s home, the sacred Temple built by the returning exiles from Babylonia. As she sits gazing at the destruction about to engulf her that same verse from Psalm 22:2 comes to her mind: אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Confusion envelops her mind. How could this be? We heeded the warning of our ancestors and have, for the most part, avoided the 3 great sins.

See your descendant sitting in exile on the banks of the Tiber. The head of her community rises and expounds, echoing the message of the great Biblical prophets: “God did not forsake us, rather we caused the destruction of our Temple, we caused our own exile because we sinned. What was our sin? Yes we avoided the sins of our ancestors but we have our own single sin equivalent to all 3 of theirs: שנאת חנם - Baseless hatred, hatred for the sake of hatred, hate with no thought of the cost or consequences of that hate.”

How do I know these were the reasons we told ourselves about the two destructions of Jerusalem and our exiles? Because our Talmudic and Medieval rabbis continued to teach them to us! In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma - the tractate discussing this great and awesome day of Yom Kippur - we are taught: “But why was the Second Temple destroyed as they studied Torah, followed the Mitzvot and did Gemilut Chasadim - Acts of Loving Kindness? Because within it was שנאת חנם. This teaches us that שנאת חנם is the equivalent of all three sins (that caused the destruction of the First Temple) - idolatry, sexual impropriety and the spilling of innocent blood.”

The ancient Rabbis not only proclaimed שנאת חנם to be the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple, they told us how שנאת חנם spread. Tractate Taanit teaches: “And the second interpretation of the language of retort, hints at the sin of the Second Temple שנאת חנם, which comes from lashon hara - malicious speech.” The great Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague in his compilation of ethical laws from the Talmud, Netzach Yisrael wrote: “And thus they said that שנאת חנם is equivalent to the 3 sins (for which the First Temple was destroyed) for שנאת חנם defiles and causes chaos within the entire human soul. But the 3 sins only defile one part of the soul each while שנאת חנם defiles the whole soul in its entirety, because the essence of the human soul is wholeness, it is singular and all of the strength of life that exists. Hatred tears the soul apart and this is against the essence of the soul.” He continues: “All of Israel was like a single person when there was one altar... By means of שנאת חנם and hateful language, the city and the Second Temple were destroyed.Using hateful language, splits and destroys unity.”

Each year, multiple organizations beseech rabbis to speak to their particular issue on Yom Kippur. They know that this night, more of you will hear our words than any other single occasion during the year. This year, advocates for health care reform, ending the wars, ending hunger, GLBT rights, and a plethora of other causes have sent me mail: postal service mail, email and voice mail literally begging me to speak on their behalf. But as I considered each, one theme kept coming back to me - שנאת חנם.

Many have called for a return to civility in our public discourse but I believe that the issue is deeper. We have devolved into a culture of hate. Politicians, preachers and commentators not only vehemently express their disdain for positions other than their own, they call upon their listeners and followers to hate those with whom they disagree.

It is easy to find their words. A quick Google search produced Rush Limbaugh calling for a reinstitution of segregated buses, a Baptist pastor expressing his hatred for President Obama, encouraging his congregation to take loaded weapons to the President’s appearances and saying that killing the President would not be murder or even a sin, two sitting governors, a gubernatorial candidate and several state legislatures calling for secession from the United States (an issue I thought was settled with the blood of over 700,000 Americans spilled in the Civil War) plus thousands of other hits about our supposedly respected leaders promoting the hatred and demonization of others. We are a country that allows free speech and I am glad we do. But, as we all know, our words can heal or hurt, cause our souls to soar to the heavens or draw us into the depths of evil.

In ancient times, we committed the sin of שנאת חנם by using language to debase and divide, not build up and unify, and thus were the Romans able to take advantage of our divisiveness to conquer and condemn us to exile.

The Rabbis, who valued debate and disagreement so much they respectfully include even losing positons in their literature, understood that sowing hatred was inherently different. They knew that after true debate and disagreement, once a decision was made, all came together to support it. Once they even punished the head of the great Sanhedrin for publicly humiliating another Rabbi who had disagreed with him. We are taught in Tractate Berachot: “ Rabban Gamaliel remained sitting and expounding and R. Joshua remained standing, until all the people there began to shout and say, Stop! and he stopped. They then said: How long is he [Rabban Gamaliel] to go on insulting him [R. Joshua]? Come, let us depose him! ” And depose him they did.

So what are we to do? It is incumbent upon each of us to stand up and call out the haters and promoters of hate for what they are, in fact we are commanded in tomorrow afternoon’s Torah portion to do so! Lev. 19:17-18; “You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart... You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai.” It is also incumbent upon us to follow the law just a few verses earlier: “You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people; nor shall you stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds; I am Adonai.” Our Rabbis equated שנאת חנם with the spilling of innocent blood, with murder, and where blood is being spilled, we cannot stand idly by.

This past Friday, members of Westboro Baptist Church came to Park Slope in Brooklyn to stage one of their hate filled protests in front of tour sister Congregation Beth Elohim. Westboro is located in Topeka, Kansas and its pastor, Fred Phelps, and members travel the country protesting at the funerals of patriots, prominent people, the victims of disaster like our neighbors on Flight 3407, soldiers killed in Iraq and Afganistan claiming that these heroes, our honored dead, are burning in hell because God killed them and was punishing them for the sin of America tolerating Gays, Lesbians and Jews.

During the protest, church members held up signs saying “The Jews killed Jesus” “God Hates Israel” and “Anti-Christ Obama”. Members of Beth Elohim gathered in front of the synagogue as their Rabbi, Andy Bachman, blew the shofar. The sound of the Shofar drowned out the hate filled shouts of Phelps and his congregants. The sound of the Shofar calls up so much in our being - it is a call for freedom for all, a hope for the coming of Messianic times and this past Friday in Park Slope, a call for us to stand up against those who promote שנאת חנם with their words and deeds.

The choice is ours: Will we allow the haters to go unchallenged and risk the breech of our walls and the destruction of all that we hold as sacred? Or will we hearken to the sound of the Shofar and work to keep those who preach and practice שנאת חנם from destroying us all?

The choice is ours.

1 comment:

  1. Rabbi Harry,
    I can't let such a great commentary go without a favorable comment. I think you really hit the mark.

    If we do not contest this hatred, it will be very hard for our democracy to find common answers to the great issues of our day.

    The hard question is how to combat hatred with strangers without becoming hateful ourselves. We will not always have a shofar to drown them out and unite us.

    Rich Tobe