“For what reasons was the first Temple destroyed? Because of three sins which were committed there: idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder…But the second Temple, where they were immersed in Torah, the commandments, and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because of senseless hatred” (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 9b).
The role of senseless hatred in Tisha B’Av is frequently discussed, but poorly understood. Yes, the surface-level reading of the Talmud’s teaching is that a person can actively perform mitzvot and yet still not fulfill God’s mission for the world if he or she engages in acts of senseless hatred. However, if the Talmud specifies that the hatred in the second Temple period was “senseless,” this implies that there is a type of hatred that is not “senseless,” and is even justified.
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aharon of Luntschitz, a Polish commentator known as the Keli Yakar, offers a terrifying definition of the difference between hatred and senseless hatred in his commentary on Sefer Bereishit. He writes:
“This is the difference between the first and second Temples: in the first, the hatred was between the leaders about running the kingdom, because the kingdom was divided (between Israel and Judah), and they were fighting about borders…In the second Temple, however, there was hatred about pointless matters, because even the lowest people hated each other for no reason. For this reason, it is called senseless hatred, because they did not actually have anything to fight about” (Keli Yakar on Bereishit 26:19:2).
According to the Keli Yakar, hatred during the first Temple period was grounded in important and consequential issues, the kind whose results matter even if results included strife and dissent. In contrast, the hatred of the second Temple period was grounded in mindless and trivial issues, conflicts that caused the society to decay because the people lost sight of the big picture.
In full disclosure, this is not a blog post that argues that the major dividing issues in the Jewish Community, such as intermarriage, BDS, or the Western Wall, are pointless matters, or the embodiment of what the Talmud means by “senseless hatred.” On the contrary, Jews disagree about issues that are immediate and consequential, and we need to fight fairly about them in order to reach an eventual resolution. However, what the Keli Yakar’s commentary should remind us is that we will fail to get the big issues right if our communities constantly get the little things wrong.
A few months ago, Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, Ohio produced a hilarious parody of synagogue life called The Little Table, the story of a synagogue board purchasing a new table for the lobby. While the movie shows the synagogue leadership devolving into chaos over an obviously trivial matter, anyone involved in Jewish organizational life has a similar story that echoes the sad truth in this satire. While it would be easy to assume that the most challenging conflicts in Jewish communities occur over major issues, any leader knows that there are far too many examples where an inappropriate comment, an unintentional slight, or a mountain made out of a molehill paralyzes the entire community. Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Gerona, otherwise known as the RaN, writes that senseless hatred “has no purpose and gives no pleasure,” and the story of “The Little Table” is the kind of example he had in mind (Derashot Ha’RaN, Essay 10). When we allow senseless conflict to become the norm for matters small and trivial, we place handcuffs on ourselves from reaching new conclusions on issues that are important and transformative.
Over the past several years, a number of Jewish thought leaders have become fascinated by the book by C. Otto Scharmer called Theory U: Leading from the Future As It Emerges. This post is too brief to talk about Scharmer’s work in great detail, but it is fascinating to read his description about what happens in cultures of dysfunctional blame. He writes:
“Blaming others dims the reality that is most critical when dealing with social complexity and conflict: seeing yourself from the perspective of the other stakeholders and understanding your part in contributing to the issue at hand. The conversational model of blaming others prevents groups from capturing the social complexities that matter most: seeing themselves as part of the system at issue. When pressures rise and a system gets stuck in blaming others type of conversations, the outcome will be predictably dysfunctional, too…” (C. Otto Scharmer, Theory U: Leading from the Future As It Emerges, 284).
Tough questions are hard enough to resolve in a peaceful way, yet how much more so when the communities themselves are places where backbiting, name-calling and incivility are the rule, not the exception. Like Scharmer, the Keli Yakar’s definition of senseless hatred is that the Jews of the second Temple period were so dysfunctional as a community about matters small and insignificant that they became incapacitated from dealing with the major issues. Therefore, the Talmud’s teaching that the second Temple was destroyed due to senseless hatred implores us to never make the same mistake of letting minor things metastasize into major catastrophes.
As Tisha B’Av rapidly approaches, I do not pretend to know what the results will be of many of the enormous questions facing the Jewish Community today; if anything, I bristle at the idea that anyone knows what will “inevitably” happen even five years from now. However, I know that if our communities cannot get the little things right in terms of how we treat one another, there is no chance we will get the big things right when we need it most.
May you have a safe and meaningful fast.