In this letter, we shall continue our discussion on the ancient hatred of our people, which is known in Hebrew as, sinas Yisrael - hatred of Israel. In a recent letter of this series, we cited teachings of our prophets and sages which reveal that our attempts to assimilate among the nations can evoke sinas Yisrael. As we discussed, this hatred serves as a Divine wake-up call to preserve our unique identity and mission, for we, the People of the Torah, exist for the sake of the world.
Paradoxically, we have a tradition that the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai – which gave us our unique identity and mission – also evoked sinas Yisrael. The Talmud therefore teaches that the name “Sinai” alludes to sinah – a Hebrew word for hatred, for when the Torah was given, those committed to idolatry began to hate the People of Israel. (Shabbos 89a, according to the commentary of Iyun Yaacov on this page, and the commentary of Rebbeinu Bachya on Leviticus 20:26)
An example of this hatred can be found in Psalm 83, which describes how an alliance of pagan nations tried to destroy our people. The psalm opens with a prayer to God to save us from these enemies. The following verses from this prayer indicate that a primary motivation of the attempt by these nations to destroy our people was their hatred of the One God, for through accepting the Torah, we became the messengers of the One God. As a result of their hatred of God, these nations also wished to eliminate our very name, Yisrael, which means, “God will rule.” The psalmist therefore prays:
“O God, do not hold Yourself silent; be not deaf and be not still O God. For behold, Your foes are in uproar and those who hate You have raised their head. Against Your people they plot deviously, they take counsel against those sheltered by You. They said, ‘Come, let us cut them off from nationhood, so Israel’s name will not be remembered any longer!’ For they take counsel together unanimously, they strike a covenant against You.” (Verses 2-6)
Why did the giving of the Torah, with its teaching about the One God of the Universe, evoke this hatred? I would like to suggest the following reasons:
1. In the existing pagan world order, there were powerful kings and rulers who viewed themselves as gods. An example of this arrogant view can be found in the following rebuke which the Prophet Ezekiel gave to the King of Tyre:
“Your heart was proud and you said, ‘I am a god, I sat in the seat of God in the midst of the seas.’ But you are a human being and no god, though you considered your heart like the heart of God” (Ezekiel 28:2).
These arrogant rulers therefore felt threatened by the message of the Torah which proclaims that Hashem – the Compassionate and Life-Giving One – is the Sovereign of the world.
2. In the existing pagan world order, there was the belief that each nation had its own god which was the source of the nation’s power and pride. According to this belief, the world is composed of competing gods and their followers. The Torah, however, proclaims that there is only One Unifying God of all the nations, and this message was considered a threat to those who took pride in the “god” of their particular nation.
3. In the existing pagan world order, human beings created gods in the image of their selfish ambitions, drives and lusts. For example, there were gods of physical strength, gods of wealth, gods of war, and gods of sexual lust. The Torah, however, proclaims that the human being was created in the Divine image with the capacity to emulate the Divine compassion and concern for all creation; thus, the Torah reveals that the human being created in the Divine image was placed in the Garden “to serve it and protect it” (Genesis 2:15). The altruistic idea that all aspects of human existence have to be dedicated to serving and protecting God’s creation is a threat to all selfish ambitions, drives, and lusts; in fact, the first human couple began to rebel against this idea when they lustfully ate from the forbidden fruit. In our own age, there is a modern version of this rebellion against the higher Divine calling, and it is known as the philosophy of moral relativism. This philosophy denies that there is a higher Divine truth and calling, which is why it claims that people can be their own gods and choose their own truths.
The Torah’s teachings and mandates reveal that there is a higher Divine truth and calling; thus, the Torah is viewed as a threat by those who make gods in their own image or who wish to be their own gods. The people who feel most threatened by the Torah hate the People of Israel, who became the messengers of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The above insights raise the following question: If our attempts to assimilate can evoke sinas Yisrael, and if our commitment to the Torah can evoke sinas Yisrael, then how are we to find the “cure” for this hatred?
The beginning of the answer can be found in the following message which Moshe Rebbeinu – Moses, our Teacher – conveyed to us regarding our responsibility to develop a model Torah society in the Land of Zion which could inspire all the peoples:
“See! I have taught you statutes and social laws, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and fulfill them, for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation!’ ” (Deuteronomy 4:5,6)
When we accepted the Torah, our willingness to serve as the messengers of the Divine Teaching provoked the hatred of other peoples; however, when we actually become a social model of the Divine Teaching – a model of “wisdom and understanding” – then their hatred will be transformed into admiration and respect. They will then say, “Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation.”
As the above teachings remind us, we, the People of the Torah, have a spiritual and universal raison d’etre; however, we are living in an age when the majority of our people have become assimilated to some degree and are no longer aware of our collective raison d’etre. They and even some traditional Jews have forgotten the Divine message that we have a mission to become “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 43:6). We therefore have much spiritual work to do, as there is increasing sinas Yisrael which is being expressed in various ways – through the revival of anti-Jewish libels, economic boycotts, international condemnations, acts of violence, and calls for our physical destruction. All of us, regardless of our background and level of observance, must therefore engage in a process of teshuvah – spiritual return and renewal – with the goal of developing a model Torah society in Zion. Through helping ourselves and each other to fully return to the Torah, we will eventually gain the respect of all the peoples, and we will then merit the fulfillment of the following Divine promise to the People of Zion:
“Nations shall walk by your light, and sovereigns by the glow of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:3)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Insights and Comments:
1. My comments on Psalm 83 were inspired by the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on this psalm, where he writes:
“God stands in the way of men and nations with His absolute power as a ruler and with the absolute requirements of His moral law, for both of which He sent Israel as a memorial and messenger among the nations. Judaism, with its concept of the invisible God and its idealistic view of the world and of life as a whole, has always been thoroughly hated by those who capitalize upon the degeneracy and corruptibility of man. The advent of Israel as a nation among nations – bare of all those things upon which the other nations base their existence – represents such a protest against the entire social and political structure of the rest of the world that the nations would desire nothing more than the elimination of Israel from their midst, so that its very name, Yisrael, and the fact of its persistent survival, should no longer proclaim the ultimate and universal supremacy of God’s rule.”
2. The New York Times (May 29, 2006) reported on the Pope’s visit to Auschwitz, where he addressed the issue as to why the leaders of Nazi Germany wanted to destroy the entire Jewish people. The Pope said:
“Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke in Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are entirely valid.”
The Pope added that “this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity”; thus, from the perspective of the Nazis, explained the Pope, “God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone, to those men who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world.”
Given the current dangers facing our people, the Pope should take his own words about the unique and universal role of our people more seriously!
3. “Horeb” by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, is published by Judaica Press: www.judaicapress.com . It offers profound insights on how the mitzvos of the Torah enable us to fulfill our mission.
4. “The Hirsch Psalms” – translation and commentary by Rabbi Hirsch, is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com .