"Being dan l’kaf zechus and bringing about peace between people are one and the same"
Chazal teach that the Second Beis Hamikdash, whose loss we mourn intensely during these days, was destroyed due to the sinas chinam which existed in the generation in which it was destroyed. The term sinas chinam is usually translated to mean senseless hatred, which raises the obvious question: Is there in fact some form of hatred that is not senseless, but purposeful? The answer is yes, there is the hatred of which Dovid Hamelech says (Tehillim 139:21), “Halo misanecha Hashem esna — Behold, those who hate You, Hashem, I will hate.”
But perhaps there’s another way to understand the term, drawing on the axiom of human relations propounded by Shlomo Hamelech in Mishlei (27:19): K’mayim hapanim lapanim, kein leiv ha’adam la’adam — As water reflects the face shown it, so too is the heart of one man to another.” As Rashi there explains, our feelings toward another person are dictated by his feelings toward us. We reflect back to him the love, hatred, or other emotions we feel radiating from him toward us.
But what happens when we’re wrong? What if I mistakenly think you’re upset at me when you’re not? Despite my error, my emotional reflexes take over and I become angry at you too. When that happens, I have engaged in what we can accurately call sinas chinam, hatred over nothing. What moved me to feel negatively about you was a mistaken impression, an illusion.
Yet the hatred remains, and once the k’mayim hapanim cycle has been set in motion, there’s little to stop it from continuing on. You will now most likely reciprocate my misplaced negativity toward you with an unhealthy dose of the very same right back at me. Relief and rapprochement will come only when one of us says to himself, “Wait, maybe there’s been an unfortunate misunderstanding here, and he didn’t mean to project ill will toward me. We might both be acting on reflexes rooted in an initial misreading. Let me reach out to him and clarify this.”
This is one more reason why the mitzvah of b’tzedek tishpot amisecha, which bids us to judge our fellow favorably, is so pivotal for maintaining interpersonal relations as the Torah envisions them. It is for good reason that the sefer Mitzvas Halevavos calls this mitzvah “the pillar on which all other mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro stand.”
If we want to eradicate the scourge of lashon hara from our lives, for example, we need to study hilchos lashon hara and learn about the evils of negative speech. But a very important part of that effort is mastering the art of giving others the benefit of the doubt, because that enables us to make an end run around any temptation we may have to speak ill of them.
It’s so hard to squelch the desire to speak negatively about someone after it has already welled up within us. But when someone has learned to stop viewing the things people say and do through a negative lens and to suspend judgment of them, he’s gone to the deeper psychological root that drives us to want to speak badly of another and has immobilized that desire.
When you live in a beautiful world full of well-meaning, albeit imperfect individuals — people, in other words, just like yourself — the need to engage in lashon hara begins to disappear. Of whom, after all, is there to speak? Yankel might not even have actually said what I thought he did. Shmuel did what he did because he’s still dealing with the effects of a difficult childhood or schooling, or just a hard day at the office. And Moishy may very well have meant something entirely different than I first assumed.
Three national surveys by University of Pennsylvania researchers assessing political polarization in America illustrate how mistaken premises can give rise to the kind of sinas chinam we’re discussing. They found that “large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans substantially exaggerate the extent to which members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them — creating a significant divide between perception and reality.” And, taking an unwitting cue from Mishlei, the report continues, “the divide between actual and perceived dislike and dehumanization can create a downward spiral of hostility that fuels further toxic polarization.”
They found, for example, that “Republicans and Democrats believe that members of the other party dehumanize them more than twice as much as they actually do. Specifically, Republicans estimate that Democrats rate them a score of 28 out of 100 (in reality Democrats rated them at an 83). Similarly, Democrats estimate that Republicans rate them 48 points out of 100 (in reality Republicans rated them at an 80).”
The same findings applied to the level of dislike between these groups, with the perception being twice the reality. And on issues like gun control and immigration, using a scale of zero for no restrictions to one hundred for complete elimination, Democrats assumed Republicans’ median score was a 92, when it was really 75, and Republicans thought Democrats’ score would be 9, but in truth it was 35.
Interestingly, Americans’ mistaken view of others’ perceptions of them are exacerbated by greater news intake. David French writes of a study last year "finding that Democrats and Republicans were wildly off in their perception of their opponents’ political extremism, and that misperception grew they more news a person consumed.”
The more we form our sense of what others are like and how they feel and think not from real-life interactions with actual human beings, but from the artificial, skewed world of the news media and social media, the more likely it is those views will not comport with reality. To perceive reality, after all, one has to experience it firsthand, not through the curated outrage chamber that so much of conventional and social media are today. In media-land, the sensational wins out every time, regardless of whether it represents life as people actually live it. The old line, “you need to get out more,” is actually true.
David Black, a prize-winning novelist, wrote recently in City Journal about growing up in the 1950s with a father who was a “dedicated radical.” Yet, he writes that
once a month, he gathered a dozen-and-a-half friends to talk politics. They represented a broad spectrum of political opinion — from the far right (a John Bircher) through conservatives, centrist Republicans, centrist Democrats, progressives, Stalinists — and him, the specimen Trotskyist. I’d watch them from halfway up the stairs, peering through the balusters.
For two hours, they fought, sometimes throwing punches. Once, someone broke a chair over another’s back. After two hours, a timer would sound. Everyone stopped arguing and fighting. Each took out an instrument — a trombone, a fiddle, a clarinet, a bass. Someone sat at the piano. My father played the cornet…. For the next two hours, he and his friends (and sometime adversaries) made music. “That,” my father once told me, “is America.”
What likely made the scene he describes possible is that no one felt loathed by anyone else in that group, and therefore they didn’t loathe them back. It’s possible to disagree, even vehemently, about important issues without things getting personal and nasty. That’s something Americans will have to learn to do in these polarized times in order for the country to move forward. It will require lessening media’s role in their lives and instead learning about how other citizens think and feel by going out and meeting them.
Seeing others in a positive light means we’ll more often believe they actually like us, and as a result we’ll feel good about them too, which they will now reflect back toward us. And with that, a wonderful cycle of positivity based on the k’mayim hapanim principle has now been set in motion. We can now understand why Rashi (Shabbos 127b) writes that being dan l’kaf zechus and bringing about peace between people are one and the same thing.
And into such a world, where sinas chinam — hatred based on illusions — has no place, a Beis Hamikdash can descend from Heaven at any moment.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 820. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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