THINK AGAIN: Letting go of hatred

The final search for hametz is meant to spur us to a more internal search as well.

Torah lesson at Rishonim Prison 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Prison Service)
Torah lesson at Rishonim Prison 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Prison Service)
The frenzied cleaning leading up to Passover ends this coming Sunday night with bedikat hametz (the search for leaven), which, according to Halacha, should cover every nook and cranny into which hametz might have reached. The following morning, we will burn whatever hametz remains in our possession.
The final search for hametz is meant to spur us to a more internal search as well – a search into every nook and cranny of our hearts. Our quarry is the metaphorical se’or sheb’isa (leavening in the dough), which prevents us from acting in accord with our deepest desire to fulfill God’s will. This “leavening” is better known as the Evil Inclination or yetzer hara.
The metaphor is made explicit the next morning when we burn the hametz.
Many have the custom, while the hametz is burning, to recite a short prayer invoking God’s assistance in uprooting our yetzer hara: “[J]ust as I have removed all hametz from my home and from my possession, so may God, our Lord and Lord of our forefathers... remove the yetzer hara from us...”
The yetzer hara is our own private Egypt – i.e., everything that enslaves us and prevents us from doing what is right.
That connection is made explicit at the end of the above-mentioned prayer, when we beg God to cause all evil to pass from the world “just as You destroyed Egypt and all their false gods in those days and in the present as well.”
THE YETZER hara is described by our Sages as a wily and ancient opponent, and he has many arrows in his quiver.
One of the most potent is to distract us from the need for constant self-scrutiny by turning our attention instead to the faults of others. Too frequently that criticism of others is salve for our own bad conscience. By finding fault in others, we feel less bad about those faults we find in ourselves – or would find if we looked more closely.
The common human impulse to look down on others always reflects a distraction from our true task in the world. For, in truth, we have no basis to compare ourselves to anyone else and thus no basis for looking down on anyone else.
Each of us was brought into the world for a specific mission – a mission no one else can fulfill because no one else was ever placed in exactly the same circumstances, with the same challenges to overcome and with the same set of strengths to help them do so. Each of us will be judged only in respect of our own unique mission, and none of us can know with any degree of certainty how we are doing in fulfilling our mission compared to anyone else.
Ranking ourselves in comparison to others rather than in comparison to our own potential is always a mistake, unless we are using others’ admirable traits to inspire our own growth.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, once witnessed two boys arguing about who was taller. One of the boys pushed down the other to advance his claim. Seeing this, Reb Yisrael commented that nothing would ever come of that boy. Had he jumped up to show that he was taller, he might have amounted to something, but choosing to push down his friend instead reflected a very negative character trait.
AS A society, we Israelis spend too much time and effort imitating the boy who pushed down others to make himself feel taller. Police Chief Yochanan Danino recently called youth violence “Israel’s No. 1 threat... equal to external threats.”
“Anyone looking at the future of the state,” he continued, “must worry about our youth, their reduced motivation for being drafted and the reduced level of youth volunteers.”
This attitude receives a lot of play in the haredi press, as confirmation of the breakdown of morality when there is no Torah.
But I want my children to focus instead on a different aspect of Israeli youth.
Twice in the past few months I have received emails from friends describing how their sons in combat units were freezing for lack of thermal underwear – one dealt with conditions on the Gaza border during Operation Pillar of Defense and the other with those on the Golan Heights during heavy winter rains.
I want my sons who are learning Torah full-time to feel the sacrifice of soldiers in the IDF. Let them think about soldiers congregated in open fields, without any protection against incoming Kassam rockets and unable to get warm, and use that image to spur on their learning. If they truly believe in the protective power of their Torah learning – and they do – then they should use those images of the dedicated soldiers at the front line to push themselves in their studies.
At the same time, the general society could benefit from asking why youth violence is almost unknown in haredi society. Hint: the answer is not the passive acceptance of authority. Watch a clip of Rav Elazar Menachem Schach teaching a class in Ponevezh in his 90s and you’ll see young men less than a quarter of his age challenging him within minutes and shouting their questions throughout the hour-long “war of Torah.”
Those for whom phrases like “doing nothing but sitting on their butts” or “parasites” come trippingly to the tongue should visit the crowded study halls of Hebron or Ponevezh or Mirrer in the early hours of the morning or peer into the synagogues filled with teenagers hammering away at the Gemara with their study partners throughout Passover vacation. It might provide a different perspective.
HATRED IS another form of enslavement.
Even when we are convinced that our anger is justified, holding on to it damages us more than the objects of our animus by distorting our worldview and turning us into negative people. Israeli society suffers from a surfeit of deepseated hatred.
On a recent visit to Boca Raton, Florida, I heard from Rabbi Efrem Goldberg an incredible story involving his wife’s grandfather, Reb Yisroel Nosson Bruckstein, about the possibility of letting go of hatred by putting oneself in another’s shoes. One visiting day at a camp in the Catskills, Mr. Bruckstein was walking along a path with his son when they passed another elderly man. The two old men nodded to one another and kept walking. The younger Bruckstein asked his father who the man was, and his father replied, “He was my havruta [study partner] and best friend in Hungary before the war.”
His son was surprised, as he knew all his father’s survivor friends and was sure he had never seen the man in question before. “Why didn’t you say hello, hug, or spend any time talking?” he asked.
His father’s second answer was more surprising than the first.
“When the deportations began,” he said, “I managed to obtain visas for myself, my wife and our baby. It was not yet time to leave, so I hid them in a safe place and told no one of the hiding place, except for my havruta. When it came time to go, I went to get the visas and they were gone. He saved his family and I lost my first wife and child in Auschwitz.”
Now the son was even more astounded than before. He could not grasp the calm with which his father related this story and the lack of any visible desire to wreak violence on his former friend. His father explained, “It was a different time and a different place. People were desperate; they did whatever they could to save their families. While I cannot be friendly or speak to him, I can’t judge him or be angry either. I should never have put him in that nisayon [test].”
How much happier would we be as individuals and as a society if we could cultivate that ability to put ourselves in the position of those we condemn and attempt to see the world from their perspective.
■ The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.