[Avodah] Fwd: Against Hate (Ki Teitseֲ 5781)

Micha Berger micha at aishdas.org
Wed Aug 18 17:32:09 PDT 2021

Wanted to share this, because it's an idea I don't think is sufficiently
integrated into our communal culture.


Date: Wed, 18 Aug 2021 18:15:45 +0000
From: The Rabbi Sacks Legacy Trust <info at rabbisacks.org>

Covenant & Conversation
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt"l

Against Hate

Rabbi Sacks zt"l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for
5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Rabbi Sacks Legacy
Trust will continue to distribute these weekly essays, so that people
all around the world can keep on learning and finding inspiration in
his Torah.

Ki Teitse contains more laws than any other parsha in the Torah, and it
is possible to be overwhelmed by this embarrass de richesse of detail. One
verse, however, stands out by its sheer counter-intuitiveness:

"Do not despise an Edomite, because he is your brother. Do not despise
the Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land." (Deut. 23:8)

These are very unexpected commands. Examining and understanding them will
teach us an important lesson about society in general, and leadership
in particular.

First, a broader point. Jews have been subjected to racism more and longer
than any other nation on earth. Therefore, we should be doubly careful
never to be guilty of it ourselves. We believe that God created each of
us, regardless of colour, class, culture or creed, in His image. If we
look down on other people because of their race, then we are demeaning
God's image and failing to respect kavod ha-briyot, human dignity.

If we think less of a person because of the colour of their skin, we are
repeating the sin of Aaron and Miriam -- "Miriam and Aaron spoke against
Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married
a Cushite woman" (Num. 12:1). There are midrashic interpretations that
read this passage differently, but the plain sense is that they looked
down on Moses' wife because, like Cushite women generally, she had
dark skin, making this one of the first recorded instances of colour
prejudice. For this sin Miriam was struck with leprosy.

Instead we should remember the lovely line from Song of Songs: "I am
black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar,
like the curtains of Solomon. Do not stare at me because I am dark,
because the sun has looked upon me" (Song of Songs 1:5).

Jews cannot complain that others have racist attitudes toward them
if they hold racist attitudes toward others. "First correct yourself;
then [seek to] correct others," says the Talmud. (Baba Metzia 107b) The
Tanach contains negative evaluations of some other nations, but always
and only because of their moral failures, never because of ethnicity or
skin colour.

Now to Moses' two commands against hate,[1] both of which are
surprising. "Do not despise the Egyptian, because you were a stranger in
his land." This is extraordinary. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites,
planned a programme against them of slow genocide, and then refused
to let them go despite the plagues that were devastating the land. Are
these reasons not to hate?

True. But the Egyptians had initially provided a refuge for the Israelites
at a time of famine. They had honoured Joseph when he was elevated
as second-in-command to Pharaoh. The evils they committed against the
Hebrews under "a new King who did not know of Joseph" (Ex. 1:8) were at
the instigation of Pharaoh himself, not the people as a whole. Besides
which, it was the daughter of that same Pharaoh who had rescued Moses
and adopted him.

The Torah makes a clear distinction between the Egyptians and the
Amalekites. The latter were destined to be perennial enemies of Israel,
but the former were not. In a later age, Isaiah would make a remarkable
prophecy -- that a day would come when the Egyptians would suffer their
own oppression. They would cry out to God, who would rescue them just
as He had rescued the Israelites:

"When they cry out to the Lord because of their oppressors, He will
send them a saviour and defender, and He will rescue them. So the Lord
will make Himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will
acknowledge the Lord." (Isaiah 19:20-21)

The wisdom of Moses' command not to despise Egyptians still shines through
today. If the people had continued to hate their erstwhile oppressors,
Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt but would have
failed to take Egypt out of the Israelites. They would have continued
to be slaves, not physically but psychologically. They would be slaves
to the past, held captive by the chains of resentment, unable to build
the future. To be free, you have to let go of hate. That is a difficult
truth but a necessary one.

No less surprising is Moses' insistence: "Do not despise an Edomite,
because he is your brother." Edom was, of course, the other name
of Esau. There was a time when Esau hated Jacob and vowed to kill
him. Besides which, before the twins were born, Rebecca received an
oracle telling her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from
within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other,
and the elder will serve the younger." (Gen. 25:23) Whatever these words
mean, they seem to imply that there will be eternal conflict between
the two brothers and their descendants.

At a much later age, during the Second Temple period, the Prophet
Malachi said: "'Was not Esau Jacob's brother?' declares the Lord. 'Yet
I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated..." (Malachi 1:2-3). Centuries
later still, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, "It is a halachah [rule, law,
inescapable truth] that Esau hates Jacob."[2] Why then does Moses tell
us not to despise Esau's descendants?

The answer is simple. Esau may hate Jacob, but it does not follow
that Jacob should hate Esau. To answer hate with hate is to be dragged
down to the level of your opponent. When, in the course of a television
programme, I asked Judea Pearl, father of the murdered journalist Daniel
Pearl, why he was working for reconciliation between Jews and Muslims,
he replied with heartbreaking lucidity, "Hate killed my son. Therefore I
am determined to fight hate." As Martin Luther King Jr, wrote, "Darkness
cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out
hate, only love can do that."[3] Or as Kohelet said, there is "a time to
love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace" (Eccl. 3:8).

It was none other than Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who said that when
Esau met Jacob for the last time, he kissed and embraced him "with
a full heart."[4] Hate, especially between family, is not eternal
and inexorable. Always be ready, Moses seems to have implied, for
reconciliation between enemies.

Contemporary Games Theory -- the study of decision making -- suggests
the same. Martin Nowak's programme "Generous Tit-for-Tat" is a
winning strategy in the scenario known as the Iterated Prisoner's
Dilemma, an example created for the study of cooperation of two
individuals. Tit-for-Tat says: start by being nice to your opponent,
then do to them what they do to you (in Hebrew, middah keneged
middah). Generous Tit-for-Tat says, don't always do to they what
they do to you, for you may found yourself locked into a mutually
destructive cycle of retaliation. Every so often ignore (i.e. forgive)
your opponent's last harmful move. That, roughly speaking, is what the
Sages meant when they said that God originally created the world under
the attribute of strict justice but saw that it could not survive through
this alone. Therefore He built into it the principle of compassion.[5]

Moses' two commands against hate are testimony to his greatness as
a leader. It is the easiest thing in the world to become a leader
by mobilising the forces of hate. That is what Radovan Karadzic and
Slobodan Milosevic did in the former Yugoslavia and it led to mass
murder and ethnic cleansing. It is what the state-controlled media did
-- describing Tutsis as inyenzi, ("cockroaches") -- before the 1994
genocide in Rwanda. It is what dozens of preachers of hate are doing
today, often using the Internet to communicate paranoia and incite
acts of terror. Finally, this was the technique mastered by Hitler as
a prelude to the worst-ever crime of humans against humanity.

The language of hate is capable of creating enmity between people of
different faiths and ethnicities who have lived peaceably together
for centuries. It has consistently been the most destructive force in
history, and even knowledge of the Holocaust has not put an end to it,
even in Europe. It is the unmistakable mark of toxic leadership.

In his classic work, Leadership, James MacGregor Burns distinguishes
between transactional and transformational leaders. The former
address people's interests. The latter attempt to raise their
sights. "Transforming leadership is elevating. It is moral but not
moralistic. Leaders engage with followers, but from higher levels of
morality; in the enmeshing of goals and values both leaders and followers
are raised to more principled levels of judgement."[6]

Leadership at its highest level transforms those who exercise it and
those who are influenced by it. The great leaders make people better,
kinder, nobler than they would otherwise be. That was the achievement
of Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi and Mandela. The paradigm case
was Moses, the man who had more lasting influence than any other leader
in history.

He did it by teaching the Israelites not to hate. A good leader knows:
Hate the sin but not the sinner. Do not forget the past but do not be
held captive by it. Be willing to fight your enemies but never allow
yourself to be defined by them or become like them. Learn to love and
forgive. Acknowledge the evil men do, but stay focused on the good
that is in our power to do. Only thus do we raise the moral sights of
humankind and help redeem the world we share.


[1] Whenever I refer, here and elsewhere, to "Moses' commands," I mean, of
course, to imply that these were given to Moses by Divine instruction and
revelation, and thusly did he pass them onto us. This, in a deep sense,
is why God chose Moses, a man who said repeatedly of himself that he
was not a man of words. The words Moses spoke were those of God. That,
and that alone, is what gives them timeless authority for the people of
the covenant.

[2] Sifrei, Bamidbar, Beha'alotecha, 69.

[3] Strength to Love (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1977), 53.

[4] Sifrei ad loc.

[5] See Rashi to Genesis 1:1, s.v. bara.

[6] James MacGregor Burns, Leadership, Harper Perennial, 2010, 455.

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