William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Between distrust and disgust — a path toward recovery

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense” wrote James Baldwin, “once hate is gone, they will be forced to live with pain.”

Nobody likes living with pain. What can help us endure pain is some perceivable gain. This is why often it is only after a person gains assurance of a strong future that a she or he can let go of past hatreds or resentments.

Yet what if people’s sense that letting go of hate will force them to live with pain is mistaken? What if doing so actually feels okay, even liberating? This week’s Torah portion legislates against needless grudges and festering grievances. As a corrective to our ancestor Jacob’s brazen preference for Rachel over Leah, we are enjoined to preference the child of a hated spouse over the child of a loved spouse. “He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife giving him a double portion of all he has” (Deut. 21:16). Notice that the Torah does not merely urge the suppression of negative feelings. It also adds positive gestures. From this we learn that we best contain bad feelings by adding good acts. Elsewhere in this week’s Torah passages, we are instructed “Do not hate the Egyptian because you were strangers in his land” (Deut. 23:7). And Moses has recently taught us to love the stranger (Deut. 10:19) since we know how being a stranger feels. Here too the darker hatred is managed by adding the light of love.

Managing emotions is elusive and difficult. Our election season finds so many voters oscillating between distrust and disgust. Many worry where all of the deeply troubling negative emotion will go after November 8th’s choice is made. Is there a path toward recovery?

My friend Erica Brown recently taught me that there are two aroused biblical responses to a phenomenon: the Exodus model and the Creation model. Wrongful conduct, that originally took the form of Egyptian slavery, demands radical overturning. Creation, by contrast, is met with wonder. The former demands that we stand up and denounce, the latter asks us to sit down and invite.

Both models are required in order to add light and perceive enough gain to be ready to let go of contempt. We must denounce disgust and invite new perspectives. May we stand up with mission and sit down with curiosity. May both enable us to begin to recover from an election season that is troublingly terrestrial with the help of a Holy Day season that is sublimely elevating.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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