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Baseless Hatred: The Great Tisha B'Av Crime
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Are these stories about monsters or are these stories about men? I want to argue to you that they’re stories are about men, not psychopaths. You know, it is easy to say, ‘Ah, there are crazy people in the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza story.’ And if they are crazy, then the story doesn’t really mean much to you, does it? But what if the story isn’t about crazy people? What if that kind of evil is actually in the reach of each and every one of us?
The kind of untrammelled rage that you have seen in these stories, I want to suggest, is something that can sneak up on even the best of us. The Kamtza and Bar Kamtza stories I think are teaching us about a process through which we all can become deceived by our feelings. Consumed with anger and worse than that, convinced that we are right, convinced that it is a sin to let go of that anger, because look how righteous this rage is, how justified it is. Where does that sense come from? What convinces us that our anger is truly so righteous? I think our immediate instinct that we are right to be so angry is not just a product of self-delusion or subjectivity. It actually comes from somewhere. It is almost reasonable, it is a product of two fail safe mechanisms.
We have certain instinctive fail safe mechanisms that are there to actually filter our feelings of anger. They work pretty well most of the time in keeping us honest, in making sure that if we do feel anger, that anger is more or less justified, or if it’s not justified, at least understandable. But these instinctive fail safe mechanisms that we have, they are not fool proof and that is where sometimes we can become deceived.
Let me explain what I am talking about. Here is our first level of defence against feelings, it is really just strong feelings of unjustified anger. I am going to call it our Reaction Thermostat. For every provocation, there is a little thermostat inside your head that judges how much of a provocation you have really suffered and, therefore, what kind of response you really should give. Somebody cuts in front of you in line at the grocery store, the little thermostat inside of your head says, well that’s a level three provocation. It deserves a level three response. ‘Hey buddy, you cut in front of me, get to the back of the line.’ It is not such a nice way of saying it, if you are a real pious person, you would tap him on the shoulder, you would say, ‘Excuse me sir, I don’t really know if you were intending this but the line starts back there, I just don’t want anyone to think that you are cutting them.’ But if you give the angry response, ‘Hey buddy, the line starts over there,’, it’s a normal response. A justified response? We can argue about whether it’s justified, but normal, yeah. It’s within the range of normal. Usually for normal people that thermostat works correctly, the level three provocation, it doesn’t deserve a level nine response. You know, you don’t go out, find his car, slash his tires. That’s our thermostat, it usually works pretty well. It gages the provocations that we suffer and we respond in kind. Most normal people have a thermostat like that and, therefore, most normal people can sort of kind of trusts themselves. That if they feel really angry, they were really provoked.
That’s one thing that gives us a sense that our rage is righteous. I wouldn’t feel this angry if I was not provoked pretty badly. But here is another thing that gives us that confidence, the second fail safe mechanism that we have. A kind of backup instinct that is a sort of safeguard, that if, for some reason our thermostat didn’t work so carefully, the rage that we are feeling is unjustified, there is a way that we can sort of climb down off the emotional mountain. I am going to call it an Instinctive Fact Checker. We are willing to let go of our rage if we check our facts and we see that we are wrong. Should I really be angry at this person? And if we decide that the answer is no, my anger is totally unjustified against him, we can let go of it. Anger is not so all consuming that once I feel it, I am completely out of control. If I am convinced that I am wrong, that this person doesn’t deserve to be the object of my anger, I can let go.
You are driving down the highway at night, it is dark and rainy night, minding your own business and then, some car comes from out of the blue and smashes into you and just before it does, you notice out of the corner of your eye, the gleam of a cell phone in the front seat. The guy was texting while he was driving in the rain. You are really angry. You get out of the car but as you get closer, you realize that it was the passenger holding the cell phone. Then you look in front of the car and you see this huge limb of a tree that came down in front of them. It hit the car and forced him into your lane. Most normal people, you let go of your rage, you reach out your hand, you help the person out of the car. If we see there was a mistake, we see that there’s no reason to be angry at this person. We can let go, and because we have these two fail safe mechanisms, because on the one hand we can trust our thermostat, we don’t just overreact for no reason; and then the odd chance that we do, we can let go of our rage if we see that there’s no reason to be angry at this person. Because of that, when I do end up feeling really, really angry, I say to myself that I am probably right and then something dangerous happens. My rage is no longer just rage, its righteous rage, and righteous rage does not want to be denied.
To get a feel for this, just go back to that case with the car. Imagine that as you approach the car, it wasn’t the passenger but it was the driver with the cell phone and it wasn’t a rainy night and there was no limb of a tree, and he just didn’t care and he hit you. Now you’re gonna let him get off with it? Your wife is in a wheelchair, your kid has six months of physical therapy in front of you and you are lucky to walk away with your life. And you approach the car window and the guys says what’s the matter buddy? I am a big Mets fan, I just had to check the Mets score. In that kind of situation, that’s a righteous rage. There is a part of you that says, it’s a sin to let go of that kind of anger.
Once I convince myself that I am in the right in being angry, I see it as a sin to back down. What, are you going to get away with this? I am going to be walked all over? My family is going to get walked all over? My anger is justified. You are telling me don’t get upset? Righteous anger does not want to be denied and thus, this is where even the best intentions of us can slip up.
What if those two fail safe mechanisms aren’t enough? Maybe your righteous rage isn’t so very righteous anymore, and maybe you don’t know it.
It’s what the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza stories are all about. Every single one of those four episodes is about this kind of misplaced righteous rage. Let’s come back and take a look at these stories and see that common denominator for what it really is.
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