Parsha of the week

Finding the context before rushing to a judgment


As the history of the Israelites in the wilderness is reviewed in Devarim, an interesting trend is presented. The nations of Eisav, Moav and Ammon are treated as closer than brothers with Israel.

In each original story of Eisav and Lot (father of Moav and Ammon) there is a word with dots over it, with the common theme perhaps being that while the real story is not very nice, the Torah is trying to be polite about it.

In Lot’s case, as the child Moav was conceived, we have the word u’vkumah — expressing Lot’s lack of awareness of his daughter’s incestuous choice with him, due to his being drunk. Some suggest he was actually quite aware, as hinted by the wink the dots send our way.

Eisav’s threat to kill Yaakov is thrown to the wind when he greets his brother with a kiss after over 30 years apart. The Midrash comments on the dotted word vayishakayhu (and he kissed him), indicating the kiss was far less innocent than it seemed, that he meant Yaakov harm.

In sum, each word is harmless, but the dots indicate that something sinister lies beneath the surface.

And yet Moshe tells the people in our parsha, Devarim, that these people were to be treated very nicely by the conquering army of Israel. Why?

We can argue that the children of Lot were harmless — what their father did bears no reflection on them. But there’s an insincerity in all three nations that strikes G-d the wrong way. “I hate Eisav” says G-d in Malachi 1:3. Moav is in disfavor in Midrash Aggadah Bamidbar 24, where it is noted that in the end of days, G-d will judge Moav for their role in the plague that killed 24,000 Israelites, as Balak took Bilaam’s advice to set up brothels, instructing the Midianite women not to service the men they entice unless the men agree to worship idols.

The respect we are to give to them teaches that the Jewish people have the responsibility, as well as the innate ability, to forgive. Even those we hate. Because Eisav has a backstory of how he was hurt, and Moav has a backstory of how they became adversaries of Israel

But it’s very hard.

Each time there is a terrorist attack in Israel, especially in a home, on Shabbat, my own feelings of rage lead me to think and express ideas which are not pretty. It usually takes someone living in Israel — who cites the context, the facts on the ground, the reality — to remind me that the situation is not black and white, and that jumping to whatever conclusions my emotions lead me to has no practical side to it.

I don’t forgive individual terrorists or terrorist funders and supporters. But to suggest that any narrative has a simple solution is naïve.

In many ways the Jewish people have moved past hatred. After 2,000 years of murderous hatred by Christians, many Christians are the biggest supporters of Israel and of the Jewish people. Israel has diplomatic relations with Germany, and grandchildren of Nazis are even proud Jews, some of whom serve in the IDF. Last year Prime Minister Netanyahu released a video claiming he cares more about Palestinians than their leaders care about them, as Israel regularly sends food, medicine, supplies, aid, etc., while Palestinian leaders abscond funds and use supplies to fill terrorist coffers.

I don’t understand the concept of sinat chinam (baseless hatred), which is ascribed as the reason for the destruction of the Temple. Hatred is based on a lie, a false pretense, or a misunderstanding.

On the Talmudic text (Yoma 9) that discusses baseless hatred, Netziv explains (Meromei Sadeh) says it is the kind of hatred that leads to murder.

If murder often has a motive, it isn’t baseless, even if unjustified. So perhaps the “baseless” could be reinterpreted to the modern term “random” — just because. In other words, it is a kind of shigaon, a mental illness. Those who randomly kill others — in a movie theater, in a shopping mall, at a Friday night dinner — are motivated by some craziness that justifies their action in their own minds.

Murder is certainly an extreme. But the Netziv explains, “When the person sees his friend committing a sin, he doesn’t judge it saying the person is motivated by lust or desire, but because he is anti-G-d and deserves to die.” Largely, the Jewish people are not vigilantes, killing sinners. And I have no sympathy for murderers or terrorists, all of whom, in my view, deserve to die the minute they take an innocent person’s life.

But beyond that, when we see another’s behavior that we find distasteful or even wrong, how do we react? While distaste isn’t baseless, it is unjustified, because we don’t know the whole story. There is much more to the totality of an individual than the snapshot in time that gives us our first impression.

Pre-Tisha B’Av we often hear that the antidote to baseless hatred is ahavat chinam, baseless love. But it’s never baseless because it follows the examples of the great Ohavei Yisrael, the models of loving Jewish people.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe saw Jews at different levels of observance and not in terms of labels and camps. Shlomo Carlebach saw every Jew after Hitler and Communism as a miracle. How many of us can say we just love all our fellow Jews, period? And why should we? Because he and she is our fellow Jew.

Sometimes it’s extremely hard.

But if we can treat Eisav, Moav, and Ammon nicely, and if the realists in Israel today can continue to say “we want to get along with our Arab neighbors,” and in many cases they do, then certainly we can find a way to try to see the context of others’ existence before rushing to judge.