Witnessing Hatred, from Ancient Jerusalem to Contemporary Charlottesville

From Seth

On Tisha B’Av, we commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. The center of the Jewish community, their destruction led to disruption, chaos, and exile. The day is marked with fasting and the reading of the biblical book of Lamentations, and is sometimes called the “saddest day on the Jewish calendar.”

Historically, the two Temples were destroyed by foreign powers: the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans on 70 CE. But our ancient rabbinic commentators sought to find other reasons–internal reasons–that led to the Temples’ fall. One such reason given is that the community at the time was plagued by sinat hinam, usually translated as “senseless hatred.”

Hinam also has the meaning of “free,” as in “hatred freely given.” And so it was fitting that on Tisha B’Av we stopped by Charlottesville, VA which, a year ago, was the site of one of the most public, largest, most frightening displays of sinat hinam in recent memory. Then, white supremacists marched through the town with Tiki torches chanting, among other things, antisemitic chants (“Jews will not replace us”). They marched through town, including by the local synagogue.

Things turned violent when someone drove a car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one, Heather Heyer. We visited the street where this happened, paying homage at the memorials both formal (the street was renamed) and informal (flowers on the sidewalk and chalk messages on the brick walls lining the street.) A clear and contemporary demonstration to the power of sinat hinam.

Viewing this on Tisha B’Av gives new meaning to this day. The hatred that has the power to destroy communities and level institutions did not just exist back then, it exists right now. It is on us to identify and name it as such. In addition to fasting and reading ancient texts, this day could be observed through this type of witnessing.

But really this type of work can’t be relegated to one day a year. It must be done every day.

When we mark Tisha B’Av today, we do not hope for the Temple’s return. That too would cause disruption, chaos, and exile. But we do hope for a time when hatred ceases. Memory is the first step, whether the events happened thousands of years ago or one year ago. Putting that memory into action is the next.


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