Reason Not to Hate

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Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Torah adjures: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land. Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of Adonai in the third generation” (Deuteronomy 23:8). Although Torah acknowledges that war is sometimes inevitable and under certain circumstances justified, it places limits on its conduct that apply to fighters, captives and use of the land. The proscription against despising the Edomites and Egyptians is perhaps Torah’s warning not to engage in a war based on religion, race, tribalism or nationalism.

Forbidding hating people because of the group to which they belong applies to our day-to-day individual interactions and relationships, as well. That has long proven a tall order and a difficult mitzvah to obey.

It is telling that Torah singles out Edomites and Egyptians. How easy to hate both! Edom arose from Esau, Jacob’s rival. Edom, whom our rabbis identified with Rome, the empire that terrorized Israel and destroyed the Second Temple. Egypt, the empire that enslaved our people for four centuries, whose pharaoh decreed the slaughter of our baby boys while we built his storehouses.

Yet let us recall that Esau graciously welcomed his brother, Jacob, upon the latter’s return to the Land of Israel with not a hint of animosity, despite Jacob’s terrible deception. When it comes to Rome, we might consider historian Martin Goodman’s theory of the accidental burning of the Second Temple and the generally accepted view of historians that many accounts of martyrdom are mythological.

Was the Roman period difficult? Yes, indeed! But are we ready to face that Jewish rebels provoked Roman responses? (Talmud preserves remarkably honest memories of this; see Masechet Gittin.) Let us also recall that the Egyptians welcomed our ancestors, refugees from famine in Canaan, and made Joseph, a foreigner, their grand vizier, entrusting to him their storehouses and treasury. The daughter of the very pharaoh who sought the gradual genocide of the Israelites worked in concert with Miriam and the midwives to save Moses, protected and raised him to adulthood.

We do ourselves no favors by painting “The Other” as wholly evil and ourselves as wholly righteous because we fail to take responsibly and learn how to fulfill the mitzvah “You shall not abhor.”

Perhaps Torah instructs us not to hate the Edomites and Egyptians to teach us that, with effort, we can find reason to not hate, or at least suspend our proclivity to hate long enough to listen, learn, and know the “other.” It’s a tall order, given how much easier and — let’s be honest — self-satisfying it is to hate. But perhaps it’s more palatable when we remind ourselves that it is a mitzvah.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman is community hospice chaplain at the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

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