The period which began this last Saturday marks the most powerful time of collective mourning on the Jewish calendar. Jews count the days from the first day of the month of Av until the ninth, when the two Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. The Talmud directs the Jewish people: “When Av begins, minimize joy.” (Taanit 26b)
The sages inform us that Jews should view the destruction of the Temples which precipitated the mourning practices as reactions to the actions of the people at those times:
“Why was the First Temple destroyed? On account of three offenses: idolatry, licentiousness, and murder…yet the Second Temple, a period when Jews learned Torah, performed mitzvot, and did acts of lovingkindness, why was it destroyed? On account of baseless hatred. This teaches that baseless hatred weighs as much as idolatry, licentiousness, and murder.” (Yoma 9b)
Many people the world over finished Tractate Yoma this past week just as the Nine Days began. And in this same section, the Talmud informs us that baseless hatred is as bad as the worst transgressions.
Even knowing this famous passage, the Jewish people seem to be more fractured and meaner to each other than I can remember.
Israel changed from a rallying cry for unity to a source of loud and hostile arguments. With the publication of the latest Pew study on American Judaism, divisions between those denominations seem more divisive than ever before. In general culture, Jews throughout the world seem separated into political camps where speaking to each other has become almost impossible. And beyond the Jewish people, the rhetoric and polemics created by the political makeup of the world have become an insurmountable wall. Hatred, even often baseless, seems to be spreading.
How do we avoid the trap of hating people?
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe known as the Ba’al HaTanya, describes a method of concentrating on certain interior aspects of the persons around us. He suggests that such contemplation leads to a higher love of God.
“The love [of God] achievable by all people occurs when one concentrates seriously in the depth of one’s heart on those things which evoke love [for God] in the heart of everyone.” (Introduction to Chinuch Katan)
If one can acquire the love of God through contemplation, then perhaps the inverse is also true. Maybe thinking about those things which evoke love can create the love of our fellow within our hearts.
What are the things which evoke love?
The sages in Pirkei Avot recount,
“[Rabbi Akiva] used to say: Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God]. Especially beloved is he, for it was made known to him that he had been created in the image [of God], as it is said: ‘for in the image of God He made man.’ (Genesis 9:6).
“Beloved are Israel in that they were called children of the Lord. Especially dear are they, for it was made known to them that they are called children of the Lord, as the Torah says: ‘you are children to the Lord your God.’ (Deuteronomy 14:1) (Avot 3:14).
This well-known and often-quoted text offers the opportunity for serious thought. At the very beginning of Genesis, the Torah teaches us that humankind was created in the image of God. Rabbi Akiva marvels at that thought. All people, whether we agree with them or not, whether they act good or not, whether we accept their choices or not, every person is created in the image of God. For Rabbi Akiva, this idea demonstrates the preciousness of every soul of every individual.
Rabbi Akiva adds another level of love shown to the Jewish people. This additional love need not be seen as exclusive. From the Jewish tradition, every Jew is considered a child of God.
This is an internal reading — a tribal one, if you will. Jews share a special familial relationship with other Jews. But other tribes and other families, be they Christian, Muslim or what have you, can see themselves within their family tradition as children of God. I have a special relationship with my family beyond my connection to all of humanity. I am also a child of the family of the Jewish people who have a covenantal relationship with God. That does not negate another family or tribe. Being part of a particular family does not deny other familial relationships. Being part of a family should create a strong bond. I do not always agree with other members of my family, but they are mine. So, while on one level, I find myself a member of the “beloved” family of humankind, I also have a special connection and love for my family. Perhaps, family ties can even create a bridge to all of humanity. We need to start somewhere.
For Rabbi Akiva, his position is reversed by the Ba’al HaTanya, leading us to a notion of unity beyond our individuality. Concentrating on the Godly part in everyone should lead to a higher order of love. Loving God and the Divine creation demands that we recognize every human as reflecting the Divine image.
Rabbi Avraham Isaac HaKohen Kook famously remarked, “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love.” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324)
I think Rabbi Akiva would suggest a revision. Loving other people, even when we disagree vehemently with them, is not baseless at all. Loving others is recognizing, no matter how wrong they might appear in our eyes, the Divine image in all of us. PJC
Rabbi Todd Berman is the associate director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem. He also founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. This piece first appeared on The Times of Israel.