Over the Rabbi’s Disk
Rabbi Howard S. Herman, D.D.
Let’s Talk About Hate
The Book of Isaiah was probably not written by Isaiah himself. Scholars ponder to this day exactly how and by whom the magnitude of wisdom in this book of the bible was actually compiled. But contained in the chapters are some truly awesome ideas. For example, we are taught in the Book of Isaiah chapter 11: “The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid; Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will lead them.” Earlier in Isaiah chapter 2 we learn: “And God will judge between nations and shall decide for many peoples: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation and they shall not learn war anymore.” The author or authors of Isaiah must have been dealing with the same venomous ideas that we deal with today. So, let’s talk about hate. In our current world climate. I do not think there is a more relevant or germane topic that requires our immediate attention and reflection.
Whether we are talking about racism, Israel/Palestinian relations, anti-Semitism, Asians, political divisions, LGBTQ rights, white supremacists, militias, the attack on the United States Capitol in January and a dozen other topics I could name, the unifying cord that ties it all together seems to be hatred. We, the world, seem to be at a conflagration point of abject hate. Hate as defined by Webster is “to dislike intensely or passionately; feel extreme aversion for or extreme hostility toward and detest.“ To feel hatred, or to feel anything for that matter, is an ordinary human emotion, and yet, what we do with hatred nowadays is to not talk about it or discuss it or even contemplate how we might approach it. Instead, we tend to immediately act on it in some of the most abhorrent and vile ways conceivable.
Judaism teaches us first and foremost not to hate. Judaism really never condones hatred as it speaks to us in Leviticus about not hating, not holding grudges, but to love. Our relationships with each other are considered more important than our relationship with God. We see this time and time again in the Talmud and in other Jewish texts as well. We are not only commanded not to hate, but also forbidden to use hateful speech, as using it is equated to murder. We are not even supposed to embarrass someone, as this “shaming” too, is akin to murder.
The Mishna in Sanhedrin teaches that we are all descended from Adam and Eve, so that none can say that their ancestry is better than any other. The Torah’s approach to hatred and hate crimes, for that matter, is to rub it out of the world -- starting with ourselves. But how do we do that? Our initial human inclination is to strike out, fight back and hate in return. But what does that get us or anyone else for that matter?
If you remember Fiddler On The Roof, Tevye argues that all the adage, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” does, is to leave the world blind and toothless. We (all of us) need to stop being so self-righteous, and believing we are always right. We need to open conversations with others and find out where they are coming from. I am not naïve enough to believe that everyone will be engaged enough to have a rational discussion with us, but I think it is incumbent on us to at least try.
We need to understand mitigating circumstances. There is a range of ways to look at any given subject, and not just the way that we or they have always seen it. Even judges, before sentencing, look at mitigating circumstances and sentence within a range of options. Dialogue fleshes these options out for us to consider and examine. Perhaps we will find that hatred is cloaked in misunderstanding, or mis-perception, or maybe even in misconception. Rarely in life do we have the right to conclude that people are truly evil. We have no idea of the challenges they have faced in life and brought them to their current state. Without dialogue and ongoing communication we will never reach a plateau where we may still disagree, but “hatred” is removed from the equation.
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
“To Life, To Life: L’Chayim”
I am certain that most of you are familiar with the song “L’Chayim: To Life” sung by Zero Mostel, Chayim Topol, Hershel Bernardi and so many others who starred as Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof over the course of so many years. That melody, along with its words, its energy, and its verve, encompassed an overarching nostalgia for all things Jewish.
Even within the dismal, desperate. and dire times in which Tevye and his family were living, there were occasions to celebrate and be joyful and grateful, not only what they had, but also who they had to enjoy it with. I think we often lose sight of this important insight. This is not to say that we should simply blot out the negative and deny that it exists, not at all. But from both a Jewish perspective and a Jewish philosophic point of view, there are lots of blessings that we enjoy that we simply ignore or simply give short shrift to in deference to all the negativity we face in life.
The former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, admonished us:o “Count your blessings, and begin to change your life.” We already have most of the ingredients for attaining a fulfilling and happy life, but we tend to take them for granted and focus on unmet wants. Sacks said that “giving thanks and praise, expressing gratitude, spending time with family, living our values and forgiveness are all steps in the right direction.”
If you remember the scene in “Fiddler On The Roof” when this song was sung, it was sung during and after a whole lot of drinking takes place. So why is it that we say “L’Chayim: To Life!” when we drink as Jews.
Two thousand years ago people would toast to “wine and life to the mouths of the rabbis”. Even Rabbi Akiba supposedly said this formula over every cup of wine at his son’s wedding celebration. So we know that toasting “to life” is at least 2,000 years old and is considered a Jewish custom. There is a theory that the Tree of Knowledge was actually a grapevine. The imbibing of grapes brought death into the world. After surviving the Great Flood Noah, plants a vineyard, and you can read of the disaster that followed in Genesis Chapter 9. In chapter 19 we read about Lot, whose daughters make him drunk and cause him to sin with them. As consumption of alcohol can have disastrous consequences, we utter the wish that this drinking of wine be “to life”.
if you consider it literally, Tevyeh’s translation of “L’Chayim” is blatantly wrong. The word “L’Chayim is plural, not singular. It literally means “to lives.” So when we toast, is it not just us we are concerned about. Shouldn’t we think about others as well? Or is it possible there is something else in play here? We believe in the primacy of the present moment. Our life exists today. We are makers of our own destiny. As Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? If not know when? (Pirke Avot 1:14).”
But Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) also tells us: The world is merely a waiting room for the world to come…One hour of life in the next world is more blissful than the cumulative pleasure of this entire world. (Pirke Avot 4:16-17). So perhaps when we utter the expression “To Life, To Life: L’chayim,” as mentioned twice, we are toasting not only the life we have here and now before us but also the future life we hope for. Rabbi Nachman says “You must always attach your thoughts to the next world never forget this.” And so, when we toast, we listen to Rabbi Nachman’s words. We always remember to live in the here and now and never forget to think about the next world.
So the next time you hoist your glass for whatever good reason, you are toasting both the here and now and the future. L’Chayim!!
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD