This week in His World” – by Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon 1
No man is truly free until he is Free of Hate
The overriding emotion that was blatantly evident at the recent clash in Charlottesville, Virginia between white nationalist demonstrators on the one hand and so-called Anti-Confederate demonstrators on the other hand, was hatred. When unbridled hatred runs wild and emotions are not contained by seichel and reflection, tragedy is almost always the result. Such was the case at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville which was positioned ostensibly to be nothing more than protecting a statue of Robert E. Lee.
The fact that the demonstration was suffused with anti-Semitism is a topic in and of itself. For purposes of this column, I would like to focus on the overriding sentiments of hatred regardless of the target of this vile emotion. No matter how one views the debacle that occurred in Charlottesville, one thing seems clear – the demonstrators would have been well served by taking heed of one of the commands that Moshe Rabbeinu relays to Klal Yisrael in this week’s parsha, Parshas Ki Tetzei.
One of the most innocuous verses in this week’s Parsha is the instruction by Moshe Klal Yisrael to “… not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land” (Devarim 23:8).
At first blush, it is difficult to appreciate how Moshe could expect Klal Yisrael, who were enslaved and persecuted by the Egyptians and subjected to ruthless hard labor, to be devoid of hatred. A closer examination of this verse, as elucidated by many of the meforshim, paints a slightly different interpretation.
Forty years after escaping from a dark chapter in the history of the Jewish People, Moshe apparently was not calling on Klal Yisrael to forget the atrocities they had experienced. On the contrary, he instructed them to recite the story of the Exodus every year, re-enacting it with bitter herbs and unleavened bread so that the memory would be passed on to all future generations. The life lesson to the Jewish People imparted by Moshe is that in order to preserve freedom one should never forget what it feels like to lose it. Yet Moshe seems to go further here by instructing Klal Yisrael to “… not hate an Egyptian“.
The connection between freedom and hatred is implicit in Moshe’s rendition to the nation. To be free, one has to let go of hate. In other words, if Klal Yisrael had continued to hate their erstwhile enemies, Moshe would in effect have taken the Jewish People out of Egypt, but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Jewish People. Mentally, they would still be there, slaves to the past. They would still be in chains, not of metal but of the mind — and chains of the mind are the most constricting of all.
The profound and prophetic life lesson from Moshe to Klal Yisrael was conspicuous by its absence in Charlottesville. The implication of the wisdom Moshe was teaching our ancestors is that one must live with the past but not in the past. Those who are held captive by anger against their former persecutors are captive still. Those who let their enemies define who they are have not yet achieved liberty.
One of the greatest advocates of this school of thought in contemporary times was ironically an icon of civil liberties who made it his life mission to fight racism – i.e. – the late Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Perhaps the tone and outcome of the protest in Charlottesville would have been very different if they would have embraced the mantra of Mandela – You cannot create a free society on the basis of hate.
Resentment, rage, humiliation, a sense of injustice, the desire to restore honor by inflicting injury on one’s former persecutors are conditions of a profound lack of freedom. While the Torah refers to the Exodus and the imperative of memory, this invocation is not mentioned as a reason for hatred, retaliation or revenge but rather as part of the just and compassionate society that Klal Yisrael is commanded to create. In other words, we are commanded to use memory not to preserve hate but to conquer it by recalling what it feels like to be its victim.
With respect to the so-called Unite the Right protestors, the durability of Anti-Semitic tropes and the ease with which the chants of these white supremacists slide into displays of bigotry, is a chilling reminder that the hatreds of our time are easily channeled through timeless anti-Semitic canards.
Those protestors demanding that the statues of Robert Lee be removed because he was a symbol of slavery may want to consider the timeless wisdom that Moshe ingrained into the spiritual DNA of the Jewish People … To acquire freedom, a slave must be able to leave without feelings of antagonism. He must not depart laden with a sense of grievance or anger, humiliation or slight. Were he to do so, he would have been released but not liberated. Physically free, mentally he would still be a slave.
In the same breath, belittling the injustices of slavery in America is clearly repugnant. The injury of servitude is real. This insight seems to be evident in the insistence on parting gifts that Klal Yisrael was permitted to receive from their prior masters. Slavery leaves a scar on the soul that must be healed. There apparently must be an act of generosity on the part of the master if the slave is to leave without ill-will.
The cries for liberty that echoed through the scary altercation that took place in Charlottesville is a far cry from the life lesson we are supposed to learn from this week’s parsha … Hatred and liberty cannot coexist. A free people does not hate its former enemies; if it does, it is not yet ready for freedom. To create a non-persecuting society out of people who have been persecuted, one has to break the chains of the past; sublimate pain into constructive energy and the determination to build a different future.
1Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon is a Sir Abe Bailey Fellow, Fulbright Scholar and graduate of the Harvard Law School. Chanan has spent most of his career in the high end of the financial service industry.
Chanan can best be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.