Sacred space, baseless hate

Rabbi Shalom Noach Beresovsky, commonly known by his pseudonym, Netivot Shalom (“Paths Of Peace”) was the spiritual leader of the Slonimer Hasidic community based in Jerusalem, from 1980 until his death in 2011.  Because of the simplicity of his ideas, his full text citations, and the directness of his Hebrew, Rabbi Beresovsky’s Torah comments, holiday sermons and essays on good character have become universally popular.  Below, I offer a somewhat paraphrased translation of his sermon about why the first and second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, the central theme of our upcoming Tisha B’Av observance.

This sermon is based upon the famous, tragic Talmudic story in Tractate Gittin 55b-56a about two men named Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, the first who was a friend of a certain Jerusalemite, the second who was his enemy.  Through a miscommunication, the latter was invited to the man’s home for a party, whereupon the man humiliated him and forcibly removed him in the presence of the community’s rabbis who did not come to his defense.  Deeply hurt by this act of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, Bar Kamtza took his revenge on the Jewish community by lying to the occupying Roman government that the Jews were planning a rebellion.  A relatively small act of mean spiritedness snowballed into the destruction of Jerusalem and the holy Temple at the hands of the Romans.  Though the story has little or no historical basis, it likely accurately reflects the stark internal divisions within the Jewish community before and during the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66-70 CE.

One of Rabbi Beresovsky’s boldest claims is that the second Temple’s destruction due to sinat chinam was not divine punishment for moral failings as much as divine failure.  Love, even and especially for those you don’t like, is what literally held that holy space together.  However, human hatred is a force so powerful it can even corrode the spiritual glue which binds us, God’s efforts notwithstanding.  Rabbi  Beresovsky recasts the Talmud’s famous cautionary tale as one filled with ominous cosmic significance well beyond its specific moral meaning.  I suggest that his teaching does not imply that communal unity should be acquired at the expense of productive controversy and disagreement.  Blind conformity in the presumed interests of unity is slavery.  He is saying that blind hatred is potentially demonic.  We will bring about our own redemption when we name and tame our sinat chinam.

Another rather bold claim that Rabbi Beresovsky makes is that sinat chinam is so heinous an act of immorality, it is considered to be even worse than the worst crimes known to Judaism;  this is so even though it is technically far less ominous in the halakhic hierarchy of punishments than these other sinful acts.

The source for this sermon in Sefer Netivot Shalom is Volume 4 on B’midbar (Numbers), pp. 210-211.

Our sages taught the following in the Talmud, Tractate Yoma 9b.

The first holy Temple was destroyed because idolatry, sexual depravity, and murder were committed within it.  The second holy Temple was destroyed because the Jews of that time engaged in baseless hatred toward each other.  The Jews of the first Temple were publicly reprimanded by the prophets for their sins, therefore their exile was limited by the prophets to seventy years, until the second Temple was built.  The Jews of the second Temple refused to publicly acknowledge their sins, therefore we their descendants still live in exile and do not know when it will end.

This teaching is confusing.  The first Temple was destroyed because the Jews committed the three most egregious sins for which a Jew is supposed to choose martyrdom, rather than violate them, if under duress.  Nonetheless, their punishment of exile was limited to only seventy years. However, the second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, a general prohibition for which the Torah states no explicit punishment.  How then has our exile continued endlessly since that time?  The second Temple generation does not begin to compare with the first for sinfulness.  Yet, for the past two thousand years Jews have recited so many prayers for our redemption.  How many rivers of tears and blood have been spilled by the Jewish people since the Temple’s destruction, with the end of our exile as yet not revealed?

Here is my grandfather, the Slonimer rebbe’s, explanation of this teaching…

The duration of exile was limited after the first Temple’s destruction because at that time no baseless hatred existed among the Jews, even though they committed those other terrible sins. God’s presence remained with them because they were united as a community, therefore they merited being redeemed.  However, during the time of the second Temple, the Jews engaged in baseless hatred and   became disconnected from each other as isolated individuals.  That breakdown of unity alienated God’s holy presence, and the Jews were condemned to live in perpetual exile…

In every generation, the evil inclination overwhelms us most effectively through divisive conflict.  Our conflicts with each other derive their greatest power from the “Other Side,” [the darkest force of evil in the universe].  However, when we are united, God is called our Father, and God’s mercy descends upon us, like that of a father upon his children…

Thus, we can now understand this whole matter of the second holy Temple’s destruction and our perpetual exile.

God commanded us in Exodus 25, “Let them (all the people united) make Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst.”  “Let them build a holy ark”…

The Temple and the ark existed specifically through the power of Jewish communal unity, for the power of the many is unlimited…

Concerning the Temple, our holy books teach that God invested it with holiness from above.

The Israelites would bring offerings there and awaken holiness from below.

When these two powers of holiness came together, they produced a union of God and humanity whose divine blessing would flow down continuously upon the people through the holy Temple where they would meet.

This flow of divine blessing could only be perpetuated when the Israelites were all together as one.

This is why the Torah commanded us all to build the sanctuary and the holy ark…

Now we begin to understand that the destruction of the holy Temples was not a punishment for the people’s sins.

In the time of the first Temple, their sins forced the flow of divine power from God to cease, because that holy union of God and Man did not take place.  As a result, that Temple was destroyed.

The destruction of the second Temple was not a punishment for baseless hatred either. As I mentioned above, baseless hatred is merely a general prohibition whose punishment is not even explicitly laid out by the Torah.  However, because their baseless hatred for each other divided the Jews into isolated individuals, the holy Temple lost its capacity to endure, and it was destroyed.  It had derived its essential strength from the unity of the Jewish people.  Once that was gone, its strength dissipated, and of necessity, it was destroyed.

As long as the evil inclination overpowers us by dividing one person from the other, redemption will be delayed, which is why we are still living in this exile which began with the Temple’s destruction.  The rebuilding of the holy Temple will happen when all Jews absorb their individual egos into the community of Israel, with one heart as one person.

This will bring about our final redemption.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2019.
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