This Saturday night is Tisha B'av, the anniversary of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Why were the Temples destroyed? The ancient rabbis explain that the First Temple was destroyed because of three things that occurred in it: idolatry, unseemly sexual behavior, and bloodshed. And then they give what to me is a provocative answer as to why the Second Temple was destroyed: "Because there was sinat chinam, baseless hatred." The Talmud goes on to say: "This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, unseemly sexual behavior and bloodshed." (Talmud Yoma 9B)
What is sinat chinam? It includes gratuitous internecine backbiting, malicious hurtful speech and the inability to discuss differences in a civil way. These behaviors are seen as being as bad as idolatry, adultery and murder.
The astonishing claim is that how we talk to and about each other around issues that matter can destroy a city or maybe even a country. Words matter. Innuendo can kill.
More and more, that seems to be true today, as well. Look at how the public conversation around routing the Metro through Beverly Hills is tearing the community apart. And notice how difficult it is for those of us with strong feelings about what is happening in Israel to talk with people with whom we disagree or how hard it is to have a civil, thoughtful conversation about health care in America.
At this season of Tisha B'av, we need to look at the costs of this kind of discourse. No wonder why it seems difficult to encourage potential young leaders to run for public office. Why should anyone subject themselves to the name calling and public vitriol we see so often in the pages of local newspapers? No wonder why many people steer away from talking about issues that matter because they assume no one can listen to ideas that differ from their own. No wonder that compromise on so many issues seems impossible. Too many people can't move beyond the place where they are so certain they alone are right.
The Book of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha B'av, begins with the word Eicha, "how?" How is it possible that it has come to this? Why do we continue to read, watch and listen to those who conduct these conversations in such a destructive way? Where will it all lead? A poem by the late, great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, has an ominous answer. If we don't change, we will be left with a ruined home, just as our ancestors were left with a destroyed Temple.
The Place Where We Are Right
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
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