"Joseph Reveals His Dream" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
"Joseph Reveals His Dream" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Choosing ‘senseless love’ over ‘senseless hatred’

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Vayeshev
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23


We live in the midst of several wars these days. Even with some hopeful signs on the ground, our hearts are consumed with pain and worry about the war in Israel and Gaza. The resurgence of antisemitism here at home — in the place many of us have long felt safe — is profoundly disturbing. Then there is another war being waged all around us: a war of words.

There is so much violent speech swirling around the Oct. 7 attack and the war that emerged from it. Words of hate are being flung at Israel and at Jews around the world. At times, some Israeli leaders and some American Jews respond with aggressive rhetoric. Within the Jewish community, there are heated exchanges of blame, accusation and name-calling, only worsening our collective distress at an already excruciating time.

I have long been puzzled by the wars of words that emerge in the wake of wars on the ground. Why is it necessary to create rhetorical combat, only intensifying the pain of the actual war in the region? Who honestly thinks that attacking one another right here in the Jewish community can possibly help our family members in Israel and people we are concerned about in Gaza? Why compound one war with another?

My journey as an aspiring peace-builder began when I first witnessed the phenomenon of the unnecessary and harmful war of words that erupted during the second intifada. Back in 2000, congregational listservs were brand new. We did not yet know what we needed to do to protect congregations and communities from the damage that could be done when people on the listserv attacked one another for holding slightly different views of the conflict, even at a time of tremendous pain for all of us.

I wracked my brain trying to answer the question: Why are we doing this to one another rather than caring for one another in our shared pain?

I’ve had many years to contemplate this question, and I have another opportunity now, as the same thing is surfacing again. Our minds create several illusions in times of trauma and intense distress.

One is that we may think that if we can “win” the argument with someone with a different point of view, we will prevent further harm, and everything will be OK. (It will not.) If we can only find the intellectual solution to the endless complex issues of the conflict, all will be well. (Actually, it will not.) Perhaps most basically, it threatens our well-being to be reminded that others hold views that are anathema to us. We feel deeply endangered, like a gut-punch that moves us to punch back to defend ourselves.

Hence the second war zone — at our dinner tables, on our social media feeds, on our campuses, in our synagogues. Our pain over the violence in the region is immensely compounded by the “dis-ease” at home.

This week’s parashah brings us a powerful piece of wisdom that can ground us and lift us up when we are tempted to add fires to the rhetorical wars.

We feel deeply endangered, like a gut-punch that moves us to punch back to defend ourselves.

Early in the Joseph story, narrated in Parashat Vayeshev, Joseph’s brothers see that he is their father’s favorite. Like any siblings, they are hurt. They are angry, not at their father whose behavior has caused them pain, but at Joseph, the favored sibling. The text conveys the depth of their rage, saying, “And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so much that they could not speak a word to him in peace.” (Genesis 37:4)

They could not speak a word to him in peace. War raged in their hearts. That internal war led to an act of revenge that, but for divine intervention, would have resulted in Joseph’s death.

The text teaches in no uncertain terms that belligerent rhetoric can have dire consequences.

But some may object: Isn’t it necessary to push back at hateful accusations made against Israel? What can we do other than hate people (Jews, non-Jews and even, God forbid, our own family members) who say such things?

I found a beautiful commentary about the practice of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, who was known for his energetic outreach to nonreligious Jews. Some of his students asked how he could pursue relationships with Jews who were not observant. Rav Kook is said to have responded, “I would rather err through ‘senseless love’ than through ‘senseless hatred.’” (Itturei Torah, vol. 2, p. 325)

He seems to be saying that even though there is a case for arguing with “the other,” he would rather that he (and we) choose the path of love whenever he can.

In days so filled with trauma, fear and anger, we have little emotional bandwidth for the challenges of difficult conversations. We are exhausted and easily triggered.

But Rav Kook also lived in times of war and danger, and he still taught the practice of “senseless love.” Perhaps our best response to war and attack can be an intentional campaign of verbal kindness in our own lives. Perhaps this is the most valuable contribution we can make, second only to caring for our loved ones in Israel and praying for the safe return of all the hostages.

May the lights of Hanukkah inspire us to bring light and kindness even during these terrible times of war.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.