Jacob’s Troubles: Where Did We Go Wrong?

What is “Sinat Chinam” and why is it at the root of all Israel’s problems, both in antiquity and right up to our day?

Photo: Najeh Hashlamoun/Flash90

Daily we hear about the massive destruction of homes, livelihoods and loss of life around the world by floods, wars, terror and fires. Such tragedies change our lives and remain etched deep within our personal and national consciousness.

For the Jews it has always been the destruction of our magnificent Temple in Jerusalem that went up in flames even as hundreds of thousands of Jews were tortured, murdered and enslaved.

But long after the fires have died down, the Jewish people are always left with the burning question: “Where did we go wrong? What horrible sin did we commit to deserve such a fate that our entire nation would be dispersed in exile for almost 2,000 years?”

The one answer that has echoed back through the generations, and the reason given for all our troubles, is machloket; the stubborn divisions that drive us apart from one another and lead to disaster.

Already we argued in the desert over whether or not we should go up and settle the Land, and we continued to fight with each other even as we became a “great nation” and during the glorious days of our Temple, and we have hardly stopped since.

This divisiveness, according to our sages, is at the root of our troubles. The confrontation and anger that have become like the spots on a leopard, an integral part of our national personality, always drag us down. We see it on the roads, at the marketplaces, in our school bullies, and daily in the petty paralyzing battles in our government.

The Talmud calls this phenomenon Sinat Chinam,” usually translated as “baseless hatred.” It is the term used to describe Cain’s hatred of Abel and why Jacob hated his brother Esau, and refers to people whose natural impulse is to reject, repel and rebuff their neighbor.

This condition and its inescapable consequences are depicted dramatically in a famous tale known as Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The story tells of a quarrel among the citizens of Jerusalem which inevitably led to the destruction of the Temple and the city. The image of two Jews raising their fists against one another without justification represents the enmity and divisiveness that plagues us until this day. The story is intended to alert us to the mortal danger of “Sinat Chinam.”

 

What is the antidote to all this?

Interestingly enough, like many antidotes it can be found within the disease itself. For while the root of the word “machloket” is connected to “chaluka,” or “division,” it also is related to “chelek,” or “portion.”

When we begin to acknowledge that each one of us is just one part or portion of the whole and recognize our own unique contribution to our community, we can stop fighting one another. For in reality, we are only hurting ourselves. We should understand that it is foolish to get so angry at one part our body that we injure it, and so injuring another member of our own body politic is not only stupid, it is dangerous.

The modern trend to counter baseless hatred with unconditional love may be well-intentioned, but it’s flawed. We are not called upon to love everything or everyone in this world. “There is a time to hate,” the Proverb instructs, and sometimes hate is not only acceptable, but required. We should hate terrorism and fight terrorists ruthlessly. We should hate prejudice and corruption and do everything we can to root out those who perpetrate evil in society.

But our instinctive, natural response to our neighbors, to the people around us, should be love.

A day is coming when we will embrace one another and acknowledge that ‘the other,’ like ourselves, reflects God’s image. That kind of love literally means the difference between blessing or cursing, life or death, in a family, community or nation.

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