A man, I believe, is defined as firmly by what he hates as by what he loves.
Sure, we can go ahead and post, with the help of ubiquitous social networking sites, a litany of partialities, celebrating our fondness for everything from Jane Austen to mint ice cream. But very few of us are equally as forthcoming, and rarely as enthusiastic, about those of life’s facets that unleash the homicidal fury lying dormant in us all.
And while love has its day, its celebrants, its canon of songs and books and films, hate is rarely allowed into the limelight. When we speak of it, it’s always as love’s darker twin, the demon we must exorcise before we are able to become enlightened human beings, at peace with ourselves and at home in the universe. The only thing we can do with hate, we are told everywhere from kindergarten to cable TV, is to somehow miraculously transform it into love.
Once upon a time, there lived a Jew who was reportedly very good at doing just that. If someone slaps you, he told his buddies, just turn the other cheek. He loved the prostitutes and the lepers and the sinners. And he told his entourage to follow his lead: “This is my commandment,” he summed it up elegantly, “love one another as I have loved you.”
That Jew, alas, is long gone, and his followers in time have quite often chosen to replace the word love with other words—ike auto de fe, for example—that don’t quite square with the Boss’s vision of amity. Still, if you choose to follow his lead, his words couldn’t be clearer: all you need is love.
The rest of us, however, Jews who are not so much for Jesus, are left with a more nuanced narrative. A few weeks ago, the Torah told us all about love, instructing us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This week’s parasha, however, goes even further. It tells us how to hate.
As we begin the story, God is in a foul mood. He reiterates some laws, but then, like a sadistic parent a few vodkas into the afternoon, speaks at great length about what will happen to us, his children, if we fail to play by his rules.
“I will order upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases that cause hopeless longing and depression,” muses the Almighty. “You will sow your seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it.”
He’s nowhere near done: as the parasha continues, God riffs on various threats, beginning by not to partaking in his erring people’s pleasant fragrances, progressing by promising to incite the beasts of the field to swallow the sinners, and ending with the simple declarative sentence, “You will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters you will eat.”
So far, the whole invocation sounds like a bit of dialogue from The Real Housewives of New Jersey. But the Lord is not one for cascading fury. As He concludes his catalogue of catastrophes, He gets around to the point.
“But despite all this,” God says, “I will not despise them nor will I reject them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am the Lord their God.”
A contemporary reader, sophisticated and educated, may be excused for feeling dumbfounded by this statement. To most of us moderns, a deity who resorts to familial devouring is, without doubt, a deity who has long decided to despise, reject and annihilate his folks.
If we were only told how to hate properly, this confusion might have been avoided.
And had we been taught how to hate properly, this parasha would have been the perfect primer. Hate, it tells us, is both natural and, sometimes, instructive. It can serve as an engine of change, often propelling us with great force and clarity to do noble and worthwhile things we wouldn’t have otherwise dared to do. But when we hate, we mustn’t forget the supreme lesson, the one rule without which our rancor turns reckless. It is this: hate, but don’t despise, reject, or annihilate. Hate, but realize that even the most abhorrent among us may one day be redeemed. Hate, but never neglect your primary covenant, that with God and the universe and your fellow man.
Next time you see that impossibly smug bloviator on television, then, or hear that neighbor who’s playing Midnight Oil after midnight, or encounter anything or anyone that makes your blood boil and your graces take their leave, rejoice: you’re a hater, my friend, and as long as you do it right, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.