Tisha B'Av 5780
I have been troubled by the phrase sinat chinam for several years, but have been unable to figure out why. Sinat chinam, often translated as baseless hatred, is traditionally considered the root cause of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and our present state of exile. But is there such a thing as baseless hatred? Isn’t all hatred based on something, real, imagined or in between? The amplitude of the hatred varies by person and situation, but with rare sociopathic exception, each ‘hater’ has his or her reasons. What is chinam really? Chinam in modern and ancient Hebrew means ‘free.’ We encounter chinam first in Bemidbar 11:5, a complaint of B’nai Yisrael in the wilderness:
זָכַרְנוּ אֶת-הַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר-נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם חִנָּם...
We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for free...
Perhaps this first usage of chinam assigns an ominous undertone to the term. The fish of Egypt were chinam. Free, yes, but seductive, taken for granted, dangerous.
This calls to mind the risks that emancipation – freedom - bestowed on our forbearers and upon us. We are free in foreign lands in ways unimaginable to our ancestors, but at the steep cost of assimilation and deep fragmentation of our people. Contemplating on Tisha B’Av the historic destruction of our people, we would do well to acknowledge that there is more than one form of destruction. Particularly in the modern Orthodox sphere where we have cultivated closer ties with the broader world, we must recognize that there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’ in galut. Applying the seductive element of chinam to sinat chinam, what emerges is a form of hatred that feeds upon itself. It is a hatred that reinforces the emotions and opinions of its bearer with ease. Rabbi Mark Dratch offers unique insight about such hatred in a piece shared several years ago. No stranger to hatred of various shades, Rabbi Dratch launched JSafe in 2005 (The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse Free Environment). Jsafe increased awareness and prevention of abuse in Jewish homes and helped combat the fallacy that such crimes do not occur in our communities. One small but tangible example of JSafe’s work are informational stickers posted in restroom stalls of Jewish institutions. Intended for survivors of abuse and at-risk individuals, the stickers convey resource information, including a Jewish support hotline. Regarding Sinat Chinam, Rabbi Dratch remarked: It seems to me that the phrase (chinam) describes the reason for hatred: We do not value the others. It is a hatred of dismissive devaluation. Others, their accomplishments, their skills, and their values and opinions are all chinam, valueless, worthless, and meaningless to me. There is nothing I can learn from them. There is nothing of value they can contribute to my life or community. These words are quite striking in context of the exceptional polarization we find all around us in Jewish and secular society. The mere mention of numerous topics is akin to tossing a hand grenade into a conversation. Masks, vaccination, Black Lives Matter, Omar vs. Antone, Biden vs. Trump, Netanyahu and so on. (It’s enough fodder to supply Billy Joel with an extra stanza for We didn’t start the fire, and it’s all from 2020 alone.) Sinat Chinam begins with fundamental disrespect for differing opinions and escalates to wholesale devaluation and dismissal of the other. At last, when the other is completely worthless, atrocities can occur. Cities can burn, from Yerushalayim to Minneapolis. Rabbi Marc Angel adds to this concept of Sinat Chinam with his observation that the word chen – grace, beauty or favor – lies at the heart of chinam. His words from 2008 resonate sharply today: One of the tragedies of society is that people tend to see others as objects, as stereotypes. It is easy to hate someone who has been dehumanized, who has been labeled with an odious title. It is far more difficult to hate someone when you look into his/her eyes and realize that this person also has "hen". This human being, like you, has feelings, loves family, has fears and hopes and aspirations. "Sinat hinam" occurs when people hate to see the "hen" in others. This type of hatred results in societal discord, in violence, in cruelty, in terrorism. The cure for sinat chinam is ahavat chinam, as described in Rav Kook’s Orot HaKodesh. The concept is about as far from ‘free love’ as sinat chinam is from ‘baseless hatred.’ Ahavat chinam begins as an intellectual exercise. Love begins in the head, not in the heart. It does not mean a wholesale dismissal of odious qualities or objectionable opinions, but it does involve a deliberate choice to look for the chen in the other. We may never agree with one another. We may not even be able to discern the redeeming features of one another, but we must strive to understand that those qualities exist. Hashem has endowed each of us with a measure of chen, and the first step in the struggle to roll back sinat chinam is to look into your eyes and start searching for that chen. May Hashem grant each of us the strength to search, and may redemption emerge from what we discover.