We have met the enemy and he is us (Pesachim 49)

The United States has overcome many enemies throughout its history.  By air, land, and sea, terrifying adversaries have been vanquished.  Through every military campaign, American troops have fought valiantly for the country. Today, many former foes have not only accepted defeat, but seen the light and become some of America’s greatest allies, from Germany to Japan to Saudi Arabia.

Who then is the enemy today?  The Democrats, of course.  That is, if you’re Republican.  They could be lurking anywhere.  They may be your neighbor, your one-time friend, or even a member of your family.

Sadly, with such rhetoric, it was only a matter of time before the tragic events we witnessed at the Capitol would come to pass.  How did we get here?

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: לְעוֹלָם יִמְכּוֹר אָדָם כׇּל מַה שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ, וְיִשָּׂא בַּת תַּלְמִיד חָכָם. לֹא מָצָא בַּת תַּלְמִיד חָכָם — יִשָּׂא בַּת גְּדוֹלֵי הַדּוֹר. לֹא מָצָא בַּת גְּדוֹלֵי הַדּוֹר — יִשָּׂא בַּת רָאשֵׁי כְנֵסִיּוֹת. לֹא מָצָא בַּת רָאשֵׁי כְנֵסִיּוֹת — יִשָּׂא בַּת גַּבָּאֵי צְדָקָה. לֹא מָצָא בַּת גַּבָּאֵי צְדָקָה — יִשָּׂא בַּת מְלַמְּדֵי תִּינוֹקוֹת. וְלֹא יִשָּׂא בַּת עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהֵן שֶׁקֶץ, אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: עַם הָאָרֶץ מוּתָּר לְנוֹחֳרוֹ בְּיוֹם הַכִּיפּוּרִים שֶׁחָל לִהְיוֹת בְּשַׁבָּת. אָמְרוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידָיו: רַבִּי, אֱמוֹר לְשׁוֹחְטוֹ! אָמַר לָהֶן: זֶה טָעוּן בְּרָכָה, וְזֶה אֵינוֹ טָעוּן בְּרָכָה. אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: עַם הָאָרֶץ אָסוּר לְהִתְלַוּוֹת עִמּוֹ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״כִּי הִיא חַיֶּיךָ וְאוֹרֶךְ יָמֶיךָ״, עַל חַיָּיו לֹא חָס, עַל חַיֵּי חֲבֵירוֹ — לֹא כׇּל שֶׁכֵּן. ואָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: עַם הָאָרֶץ מוּתָּר לְקוֹרְעוֹ כְּדָג. אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר יִצְחָק: וּמִגַּבּוֹ. תַּנְיָא, אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא: כְּשֶׁהָיִיתִי עַם הָאָרֶץ אָמַרְתִּי: מִי יִתֵּן לִי תַּלְמִיד חָכָם וַאֲנַשְּׁכֶנּוּ כַּחֲמוֹר. אָמְרוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידָיו: רַבִּי, אֱמוֹר כְּכֶלֶב! אָמַר לָהֶן: זֶה נוֹשֵׁךְ וְשׁוֹבֵר עֶצֶם, וְזֶה נוֹשֵׁךְ וְאֵינוֹ שׁוֹבֵר עֶצֶם. תַּנְיָא, הָיָה רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר: כׇּל הַמַּשִּׂיא בִּתּוֹ לְעַם הָאָרֶץ, כְּאִילּוּ כּוֹפְתָהּ וּמַנִּיחָהּ לִפְנֵי אֲרִי. תַּנְיָא, רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר: אִילְמָלֵא אָנוּ צְרִיכִין לָהֶם לְמַשָּׂא וּמַתָּן, הָיוּ הוֹרְגִין אוֹתָנוּ. גְּדוֹלָה שִׂנְאָה שֶׁשּׂוֹנְאִין עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ לְתַלְמִיד חָכָם יוֹתֵר מִשִּׂנְאָה שֶׁשּׂוֹנְאִין אוּמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּנְשׁוֹתֵיהֶן יוֹתֵר מֵהֶן.

A person should always be willing to expend all he has in order to marry the daughter of a Torah scholar. If he cannot find the daughter of a Torah scholar, he should marry the daughter of one of the pious people of the generation. If he cannot find the daughter of one of the pious people of the generation, he should marry the daughter of one of the communal leaders. If he cannot find the daughter of one of the communal leaders, he should marry the daughter of one of the charity heads. If he cannot find the daughter of one of the charity heads, he should marry the daughter of one of the schoolteachers. However, he should never marry the daughter of a land-person (illiterate) because they are despicable.

Rabbi Elazar said: It is permitted to stab (ridicule) a land-person on Yom Kippur that occurs on Shabbat (for this will motivate him to change). Rabbi Elazar said: It is prohibited to travel with a land-person, as it is stated with regard to Torah: “For it is your life and the length of your days”. A land-person has not studied any Torah, indicating that he is not concerned about his own life; with regard to another’s life, all the more so.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nacḥmani quoted Rabbi Yocḥanan: It is permitted to tear open a land-person like a fish (i.e. one should teach him Torah even if he is resistant). Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzcḥak said: And one may cut him open from his back (i.e. one should find ways to teach him that don’t reveal that you are attempting to draw him close to Torah).

Rabbi Akiva said: When I was a land-person, I said: Give me a Torah scholar and I will bite him like a donkey! (i.e. the feeling is mutual).  Rabbi Eliezer says: If they did not need us for business, they would kill us.  The hatred which land-persons have for Torah scholars is greater than the hatred that the nations of the world have for the Jewish people.

Listen to the way some of the rabbis refer to Amei Ha’aretz – land-persons.  That was the colloquial name they gave to unlearned folks, the implication being that they were more concerned about earthly desires than spiritual pursuits.  Of course it was an ideological battle and ultimately, our Sages were trying to impress upon their followers the importance of dedicating themselves to a life of Torah and mitzvos.

But as Rabbi Akiva points out, such tough language does not inspire anyone. It only serves to exacerbate the divisions.  That’s why Rabbi Akiva would teach that ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is the greatest Torah principle.  In modern academic parlance, we would say: Don’t ‘other’ any person.  Try to see them just like yourself.

Sadly, throughout our history, we’ve found ways to draw lines of demarcation by creating labels of separation.  In the times of the Talmud, it was Chaver vs. Am Haaretz.  At various other times, it’s been: Pharisee vs. Sadducee.  Rabbinite vs. Karaite.  Orthodox vs. Non-Orthodox.  Frum vs. Frei.

Thank God, during our history, we’ve had heroes who have dedicated themselves to building bridges and demolishing these false fences that we erect – from Rabbi Akiva to the Baal Shem Tov, both of whom amassed tens of thousands of students, true lovers of man and God.  No doubt, the Baal Shem Tov would have read this Gemara as a piece of satire, designed to provoke introspection and soul-searching on the part of those who were ‘othering’ the unlearned people.

Let’s return to the tragic events that took place earlier this week.  The Baal Shem Tov teaches that anytime you see something bad happen, it must evoke introspection.  Each of us needs to ask ourselves what went wrong and what we could have done to stop the calamity.

Who is the enemy of the American people today?  Well, if you’re Republican, it’s obviously the Democrats.  And if you’re a Democrat, there’s no greater threat to humanity than a Republican-led Congress.  That’s how Wednesday’s tragic events happened.  Because so-called leaders have been stirring up hatred and animosity of one citizen towards another for some time.

But not just hatred.  Dehumanization and demonization of the other.

It didn’t begin with Trump.  The awful rhetoric has been on the rise over the last couple of decades.  It’s shocking the way political opponents and media pundits have referred to presidents or presidential candidates, from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney to Hilary Clinton to George W. Bush.  These incredible leaders were reduced to objects of ridicule, or worse yet, evil-incarnate.

And when we’re talking about the potential for evil people taking over the country, why were we surprised when the mob decided to do whatever they could to impede the implosion?

Let me be clear: Trump could have and should have stopped the tragic events, and he is personally responsible for what happened.  Sadly, though, this is the culmination of decades of terrible rhetoric.

The people that entered the US Capitol weren’t AK-47 wielding paramilitary members looking to start a civil war.  They were just a ragtag group of simpletons, blind followers of a narcissistic cult-leader.  Did you hear the way Trump himself infantilized them?  “Go home now (children).  We love you.”

As long as we think of life as ‘us vs. them,’ we will continue sliding backwards into the abyss of barbarism.  It’s time we removed the false fences we’ve created in our minds between different kinds of people.  We need to start listening to one another and not demonizing them just because we don’t agree with their opinions.

May we always view ‘others’ with compassion, grace, and tolerance, and may the Almighty, in turn, shine His countenance upon us and redeem us from the crises in the midst of which we find ourselves right now.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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