The 21 days of semi-mourning that is collectively referred to as the Three Weeks, culminating with the fast day of Tisha b’Av – the ultimate day of mourning in the Jewish calendar – begins in a few short days. During this period of time Jews reflect on the myriad of tragedies that have befallen us since the destruction of the Holy Temple and our subsequent exile.
Over the centuries since that calamity, Jews were subjected to numerous massacres and massive annihilations that decimated our nation – many of which took place in the month of Av, in particular on the ninth day.
My mother a’h observed Rosh Chodesh Av as her parents’ yahrzeit for that was the day they and thousands of bewildered, innocent Jews arrived in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. Middle aged, they were deemed too old to be productive slave laborers and sent to perish in the gas chambers. Their bodies literally went up in smoke, as they were shoveled into the death camp’s crematoria – a final act of flagrant degradation. Cremation is forbidden according to Jewish law. Jews are buried, and their burial places revered and visited on the anniversary of their death. As stated in Kohelet 3:20 “all came from the dust, and all return to the dust.”
The wise Shlomo HaMelech, author of Kohelet points out that there is a season for everything – including a time to love and a time to hate (Kohelet 3:8).
As a young child of Holocaust survivors, I instinctively internalized the later feeling, deriving satisfaction when, for example, I heard of a train derailment in Germany with many fatalities. I would think to myself, let these people, the generation of Hitler and their descendants feel the inconsolable sorrow and grief of losing a beloved family member abruptly and unnaturally.
After all there is the biblical precept of Midda ke’neged midda – what goes around comes around. (The term used in the secular world is “payback.”)
I admit that I initially questioned this mind set – after all, we dip droplets of wine out of our cups at the Seder table when recounting the 10 plagues that the Egyptians were subjected to – to show some sympathy for their suffering.
We are thus taught not to enjoy the misery of our enemies. Was I then being cruel to “celebrate” the death and injury of men, women and children who may not have been old enough to participate in the Nazi genocide?
I found the answer to my dilemma in the Torah. We are strongly exhorted to “Zechor et asher asah lecha Amalek, Remember what Amalek did to you… You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget.”
To that end Shaul HaMelech was divinely commanded to kill every living thing connected to Amalek – even animals and livestock (Devarim 25:17-19). When he failed to do so, his very human trait of “mercy” was considered to be such a transgression that his kingship was taken away from him and bestowed on David and his descendants. Sometimes you have to suppress your innate kindness in order to ensure your wellbeing.
As stated in Kohelet Rabbah (7:16:):“Those who are kind to the cruel end up being cruel to the kind.”
Some would argue that hate is self-destructive, that it can consume one’s focus so that one becomes oblivious to the joys and pleasures in front of them. I agree that any extreme emotion is harmful but a modicum of hatred, like pain is necessary.
Without the pain, for example, of a toothache, we would not know that there is an infection in the root that could become life threatening. If there was no pain, we might not realize the water in the bathtub is too hot and scalding. In fact there are people who have a rare medical condition that prevents them from feeling pain. A child could have a rusty nail in her foot and not be aware of it. Those who never feel pain are at great risk of dying due to a lack of awareness of a serious, medical crisis.
So too, a measure of passive hatred (as opposed to active hatred – you don’t physically go and punch someone out just for sneering at your obvious Jewish self ) can make one become more vigilant, more attuned to outside threats, giving you the heads up to possibly avoid or deflect it.