As fires have raged across Israel, I cannot help but wonder if there is something deeper in the symbolism of a country nearly engulfed in flames. These fires, in their own way, almost appear as physical manifestations of the anger and hatred that spawned them. Like fire, once hatred is ignited it cannot easily be controlled. Even if we believe it is justified, hatred soon takes on a life of its own consuming the innocent along with the guilty.
The Talmud views fire as an archetype for one of the four categories of damages (Bava Kamma 60a-b), and that it is also representative of the broader destructive elements that human beings can unleash into the world. In such circumstances, the wicked may be the cause, but the righteous are often the first victims. Within this talmudic discussion, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas perceives a dark truth about human nature. The wanton ruin brought about by arson is a microcosm for humanity’s capacity to bring war and destruction to the world. As a survivor of the Holocaust, he watched first hand as Europe descended into barbarism and was forever scarred by the war’s horrors. He was particularly sensitive to the ways in which unchecked nationalism and hatred of the Other can spread like wildfire. Levinas also identified that such hatred is fundamentally irrational. He writes:
Evil people bring war about. To be sure. Those who could have stopped it would have been its first victims. A rationality is still unfolding in the events of war but no longer finds a Reason capable of unraveling. The reason of war would end in unreason. (Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 186)
Levinas is calling attention to the reality that giving into hate disrupts the fragile balance of society and turns reason on its head. Much of Jewish history has revolved around being the target of the kinds of irrational hatred that ran wild during World War Two. Even small acts of anti-semitism can foreshadow the coming of much darker and sinister events. Sparks of anger can quickly turn into an inferno of hatred. Though he does not make an explicit connection in his writing, Levinas’ insights about the destructive capacity of fire also help inform the name chosen to capture the systematic annihilation of European Jewry — “Holocaust” meaning burnt or consumed by fire.
In our day and age it is easy to be awed by the way in which anger and hatred have been embraced in order to motivate action and achieve political power. However, we should never deceive ourselves into believing that they can provide a true answer for the problems that most vex us. Rav Avraham Yitchak Hakohen Kook, best known for his spiritual intuitions, also had great insight into the destructive impulses buried within human nature. In his spiritual journals he declares:
We must hate and reject all anger with the very depths of our being. We must do so with restraint, but we must hate the roiling anger that confuses the mind and invalidates all the great potential within human beings both individuals and the collective. When we see a political or religious group that always speaks with anger, this is a sign that it has no true knowledge. It has no inner content with what to fill the emptiness contained within it. In truth it is furious with itself and its own deficiencies but egoism comes and make it place the blame and the poison of anger towards others. (Shemoneh Kevatzim 3:134)
Rav Kook understood that anger and hatred is rarely justified, and most of the time it is a reflection of our own inability to confront the weaknesses, insecurities, and failures that plague our inner psyche. Our selfishness, however, prevents us from looking within so instead we place the blame on others. Anger and hatred needs a scapegoat on which to direct its fury, and even if one is not readily available, it will eventually find a vulnerable target.
It has long been noted that there are two seas in Israel: the Dead Sea and the Kinneret. Both are linked by the Jordan River, but the Kinneret is full of fish, vegetation, and life whereas the Dead Sea is lifeless. The distinction between the two is that the Kinneret receives water at one end and gives on the other. The Dead Sea receives water but gives none and as a result, no living thing can survive in its toxic mix of salt and chemicals. Anger and hatred is built on a similar kind of selfishness. They pursue only their own needs and in the end know only death and destruction
When the fires of hatred appear to be spreading out of control, what can we offer as a response? It may be tempting to claim that one has to fight fire with fire, but in the real world only water can extinguish a fiery blaze. In the Jewish tradition water is often linked with chesed, acts of selfless kindness, and only chesed can truly overcome hate. Just as water provides life, so too does chesed represent the capacity for God and human beings to sustain existence. This link can be seen in last week’s parsha Chayei Sarah. When Avraham sends his servant back to his homeland in order to find a wife for his son Yitzchak, the servant is uncertain how he will identify the proper bride. He eventually decides that the woman who provides water for him and for his camels must be the one chosen by God. By reaching out to an unknown stranger, Rivkah impresses Avraham’s servant with her passionate kindness.
Chesed requires us to give up our selfish egoism and put the needs of others first. In times such as ours, we must all rededicate ourselves to these efforts. While the Jewish people are no strangers to being on the receiving end of the flames of hatred, we too have also demonstrated a considerable ability to set fires of our own. As terrorists were spreading fires across Israel, a Reform synagogue in Ranaana was vandalized and defaced with death threats proclaiming that Reform Judaism has no place in the land of Israel.
In our current moment, when the flames of hatred seem so bright, we must remember that only chesed, selfless kindness, can extinguish the fire that seems ready to devour our world.