“I just feel it so intensely,” she said to me. I was walking with a congregant earlier this week (because of COVID I take many in-person meetings outside, often walking). On this particular morning, I was speaking with a congregant who told me how she felt about a fellow member who had different political views from hers. She was struggling to maintain a friendship with someone she had known for decades who she felt “lived in a different world.” “I hate what she stands for, it’s destroying everything.”
“Take a breath, get your feelings out,” I said, “get the pain out and then let’s talk.”
As we rounded another corner in the neighborhood, she told me of all the time they spent together, raising kids, having Shabbat and going on trips, but now, it seems that every interaction is weighed down by this fierce undercurrent of difference, when she finally said out loud what she had been wondering for a while, “I don’t know if I want to be in her life anymore, I might just walk away.”
I nodded and looked at her face, tense with wrinkles curling at the lips, her brow slightly furrowed in consternation. She was coming to a decision point, a hard one, and that’s why she was walking with me.
I think many of us have had moments just like this in the last few years. Whether it’s the unending disappointment with each other in our political climate, the feverish anxiety because of the pandemic, or the flare-up of fear in our hearts because of antisemitism, life is just so intense.
And we all consider walking away from each other.
I purposefully won’t share which side of the political spectrum she is on. That’s because the point is not if she is a conservative or a liberal or any other political or tribal identity. In the moment we spoke, her voice trembling in frustration and uncertainty, her beliefs took a back seat to what she was feeling. It’s the same cluster of feelings many of us have – the deep unsettledness of difference and the backbeat of fear and shame that courses through our relationships when we realize another human being does not mirror our own self image. Like her, we want to be accepted by our friends, and to be affirmed and understood, but with the insatiable intensity of life all around us, with forces so much stronger than us pulling us away from each other, it becomes so easy to curate the differences out of our lives even at the cost of decade-long relationships. The inner transformation from love to resentment to hate does not happen all at once, but once it begins it becomes hard to stop.
I’m reminded of what the writer James Baldwin wrote, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” If only we could deal with our inner lives, our outer lives would be so much better.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitze, the dynamic of how our inner and outer worlds play off of each other in a single verse seems to go by us almost unnoticed. “Do not hate the Edomite, for he is your kinsman. Do not hate the Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23:8) Moses knows the progression from love to hate and at this moment he is trying to reverse the course in the most radical of ways. The Edomites, according to the Torah, are descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau. In the first part of the verse, Moses is telling the Israelites not to hate their cousins. Fair enough, as the midrash says, “so great is brotherhood, it must override our hatred. (Sifre Deuteronomy 252:1) More radical is the case of the Egyptian. Recall what began as a loving and embracing relationship at the end of Genesis between the family of Jacob and the family of Pharoah devolved into resentment, oppression, hundreds of years of slavery, and eventually genocide. (Exodus Ch.1)
Now, just forty years later, Moses is instructing this new generation to let it go.
What Moses is trying to do is use the worst case scenario to form the best case scenario. Societies that are moral and free cannot be founded on resentment. If we can let go of our hatred of our enemies, how much more important should it be to let go of our resentment for each other? If the Israelites are to build a new world, one based on love and justice, then they must not only liberate themselves from oppression, but also free themselves of their hatred. What was true for them is true for us. Of all the movements for our own liberation, perhaps the most important is to liberate ourselves from our resentment of the past so that we are free to build our future.
In Jewish tradition we are only weeks away from the New Year, Rosh Hashanah. According to legend it is when heaven and earth come closest to each other and the veil that separates our outer life from our inner life grows the thinnest. We should take this time to release ourselves from the backbeat of pain, from the disappointment we have with ourselves and others and let go of the resentments that build up between us. If Moses can ask us to not hate the archetypal oppressor, surely we can come together as a community and affirm the godliness between us all. In just three weeks, we will hear the sound of the shofar, calling us from our past and into our future. Let us heed the call and build the world anew.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah