Hannah Pollak

Public image and baseless hatred

Jewish Law is quite concerned with one’s public image. Don’t get me wrong. While ultimately it’s all about “knowing before Whom you toil,” Halacha also acknowledges that the individual Jew does not live in a vacuum. We are all part of a larger society, and we have to be mindful to act not only in a way that is proper in the eyes of God but also in a way that appears proper in the eyes of other human beings. This is where the concerns of “chashad” (suspect) and “maris ha’ayin” (appearance of the eye) come into play as normative Halacha. One should not act in a way that creates suspicion in others. Likewise, one should not do what’s permitted if it will mislead people who don’t know the details or the context of what one is doing. They might think one is doing something else, which is actually forbidden, and say, “if he does that, then it’s acceptable, and I will also do it.” Out of these concerns, for example, Halacha dictates (see Orach Chaim 301:45) that I should not hang clean clothing on Shabbos to dry (something that is permitted) because someone might think I washed it on Shabbos (which is forbidden).

While these concerns are extremely significant and are part of our accepted Halacha, we could argue that they should lead us to a higher level of sensitivity that is sometimes overlooked. What I’m referring to is “maris ha’ayin” and “chashad” in terms of mitzvos that are between the person and his fellow. Being cognizant that people are paying attention to how I keep those obligations that are between me and God should make me aware of how others perceive my relationship with them. I should not want my fellow to think that I’m insensitive to God’s expectations of me, therefore I will not go into a McDonald’s, even if it’s only to get a drink. Similarly (and even more so, as we will explain), I should not want my fellow to feel that I have something against them (even if I don’t, but it might lead to that misinterpretation).

For example, the Torah forbids “hating your brother in your heart” (Vayikra 19:17). The Oral Torah says this prohibition is violated when over three days I don’t speak to my friend because of animosity (Sanhedrin 27b). Let’s say I don’t have any animosity toward you. However, I see you in Shul every morning, and I’m just too busy minding my own business and figuring out my own challenges, that I simply don’t say hi to you for three days. Did I technically violate the prohibition of hatred in one’s heart? No! I don’t feel anything negative towards you! However, let’s remember that the Torah does not only care about the forbidden act itself but also about the reaction it elicits from those who see me. This principle can be applied to many scenarios in everyday life. For instance, if I’m having a rough day and walk around with a grumpy face, you might pass by and think I don’t like you or that I’m upset at you. This is not the case at all. In fact, I love you, as I say every morning before davening, “I accept upon myself the mitzvah of loving every Jew as I love myself.” But still, I am creating a mistaken impression in you; you might think I don’t love you. Another example that comes to mind is the following: You’re sitting next to a friend, and a few tables away there’s another friend. You need to speak with this other friend, you need to tell him something important. However, have you ever thought that your first friend might think you don’t like him or that you don’t like him as much as your other friend? Perhaps you can find a way to deal with the situation that will not make anyone unnecessarily feel inadequate or unloved.

The question is, why should we be so cautious about not creating in others a feeling that there’s anything negative between us? On a very basic level, there’s the consideration we brought up above. The Torah tells us, “You should be clean to God and before Israel” (Bamidbar 32:22). Chazal (Pesachim 13a) explain that this means not engaging in behavior that generates suspicion in others. However, when it comes to interpersonal mitzvos, this concern is even more significant. Yes, of course, I have a personal obligation to preserve my good reputation. While it is certainly wrong to forfeit one’s own dignity and status, it is worse to put others in a degrading position. When I am not mindful of how you might feel about our relationship, I might make you feel insecure and unworthy.

Moreover, we can say that when a person commits a sin, he is distancing himself from his Creator. When a person commits a sin against his fellow, he is distancing himself from his fellow (and from God as well since it’s against God’s will to be insensitive to another person). If I hang my wet clean laundry on Shabbos, I am going against Halacha, but technically (at least on a Biblical level), I am not breaching my relationship with God. However, if I don’t smile at another person properly, I am probably harming our relationship. From my end, there are no negative feelings whatsoever. Nevertheless, since you do not know that I am not smiling at you because I am overwhelmed, you might think something is wrong between us. Regarding how others feel about me, not having a malicious intent to harm is not enough. I have to be extra aware, lest my innocuous lack of sensitivity or thoughtfulness makes you question if I really love you. Perhaps we can find support for this idea from Chumash. The Torah testifies that God saw that Leah was hated (Bereshis 29:31). It is impossible and ridiculous to say that Yaakov Avinu, “the choicest among the Avos,” hated anyone, and all the more so his righteous wife. The Torah itself even acknowledges a verse earlier that Yaakov loved Leah. The problem is that since he loved Rachel more than Leah, Leah felt hated. According to the narrative of the Torah, written from God’s perfect viewpoint, Leah’s subjective feeling of being hated becomes, to some extent, the objective reality.

We could suggest that perhaps this is a potential explanation for baseless hatred. We know the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, but honestly, who hates for no reason?! No one hates for nothing… The problem is that Reuven hates Shimon because Reuven thinks Shimon has something against him. In reality, Shimon harbors no negative feelings toward Reuven. However, since Shimon was not careful enough to let Reuven know he loves him and to avoid any gesture that might suggest the opposite, a vicious cycle of negative feedback was created between them. Imagine this happening on a massive scale, and now we can understand why we’re still in Exile…

In fact, this might also be a way to understand the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. We know that Chazal say the Second Temple was destroyed because of this tragic story (Gittin 55b). Yet, we know that this story was the “cherry on top,” the meta-representation of an underlying malady. It’s interesting that the Gemarah never explains why the person hosting the feast and Bar Kamtza had a hateful relationship. We could say it’s exactly because of what we said above. It’s not like something in particular happened and the hatred emerged. Rather, one of them was not careful enough to make sure the other one felt loved and liked, and thus, hatred developed. Later in the story, the silence of the great sages at the feast is also prominent. What is so severe about the silence? We could answer along similar lines: The chachamim did not make Bar Kamtza feel supported! We know that the honorable guests were on the victim’s, Bar Kamtza’s side, but for whatever reason, they were silent. However, naturally enough, Bar Kamtza misinterpreted their silence and felt hated. Lastly, we can say this is exactly what happened with the emperor’s offering. While the kohanim refused to offer the Korban because of technical problems with the animal and not personal considerations against the emperor, the emperor still “took it personally.” Why not say that this story comes to teach us that our actions have consequences, despite our innocent intentions? It comes to teach us that we have to go the extra mile to consider how others will feel or think based on what we say or do, keeping in mind that they don’t live in my brain and thus, they don’t know there are no personal negative feelings.

To end on a positive note, let’s remember that “the measure of reward is always greater than the measure of punishment” (see Sotah 11a). If so much tragedy came about from baseless hatred and generalized indifference toward the response my innocuous actions would have in you, how much light and rehabilitation can we bring by being extra mindful of someone else’s feelings, by making everyone feel loved and welcomed in our presence?

About the Author
Hannah Pollak is a college student pursuing a career in Jewish education. She was born and raised in Chile, South America. Today, she lives in New York, where she is learning Torah and getting a degree at Stern College for Women.
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