Religious Life

Plowing with Love and Doubt – Weekly Words of Torah from Rabbi Davis – August 2, 2019


Shalom Chaverim
When my kids were young and we’d have dinner, one of them would inevitably say something like, “I hate broccoli.” And I’d say back to them, “you can just say ‘no thank you.’ And at some point during the day, one of the kids would inevitably say to his brother, “I hate you.” And I’d ask him to find a different word saying, “we don’t ‘hate’ our brother.”

When it comes to broccoli, if my kids don’t like it, ok, they can have an extra helping of salad instead. But when it comes to one of their brothers, as much as they might have wanted to, they can’t just swap him out for one down the street.

Unfortunately, in the history of the Jewish people and in the history of this country, we have known such hatred of brother to brother. And I fear those same feelings are welling to the surface in our community and in our society once again.

I’ve been thinking about hatred as we approach 9 Av, a day of mourning that marks the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The rabbis famously teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. They are referring to internal fighting between various Jewish factions, brother against brother. This friction and this fracturing, they suggest, so weakened the Jewish people that they could not withstand the threats of external enemy, Rome.

What is behind baseless hatred? The rabbis point to the story of Joseph and the strife with his brothers seeing it as a precursor to the events of Second Temple days. I would suggest that it portends destructive tendencies in our own days as well.

We read in the Torah, “And when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him vayiru echav ki oto ahav avihem mikol echav vayisnu oto” (Gen 37:4).

The conflict between Joseph and his brothers was about more than a coat of many colors. Joseph acted as if his father loved him best of all implying that there wasn’t enough love to go around to others. The brothers themselves internalized this message. They viewed life as a zero-sum game where there can only be one winner. If Joseph wins, we lose. They think if others are succeeding, then we must be failing.

I am reminded of a poem by Israel’s greatest modern poet, Yehuda Amichai called “The Place Where We are Right hamakom shebo anu tzodkim.” The poem describes a closed-minded person who is so convinced that he is right, he has no room for new ideas or alternative perspectives. He is closed to compromise. He is therefore, stunted in his growth.

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

The poem continues suggesting that when we question, when we leave a little room for doubt, for ambiguity, we create the possibility of change by preparing the ground for growth. Amichai writes,

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

In explaining the poem, author, educator and activist Parker Palmer captures the challenge of our days. “The poem,” he says, “leads me to ask a question worth pondering: How might things change if we began our political conversations not from our certainties, but from our “doubts and our loves”?

“Many of us who differ politically love the same things — our children and grandchildren, our country, the natural world. Yes, we differ on what ought to be done. But what if instead of starting by arguing over solutions — over “the place where we are right” — we began by sharing our loves and doubts? I suspect that our political conversations would be much more productive because they would proceed from common ground.”

Amichai concludes his poem, “And a whisper will be heard where the ruined house once stood v’lchisha tishma bamakom shebo haya habayit asher necherav .” The ruined house is of course an allusion to the destruction of the Temple. What is the whisper? Rather than shouting our certainties, perhaps if we whisper to one another our doubts and our love, something new will grow.

Chaverim, we can overcome sinat chinam when we adopt a posture that says, you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right, when we affirm that disagreement does not have to lead to disconnection. Perhaps then, we just might hear kol d’mama daka, the still small voice of God’s whisper.