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The Call of Introspection

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As the Three Weeks began, I found myself thinking about the movie “The Gladiator” with Russel Crowe. It is, clearly, a film that presents a motif of good versus evil and we are to feel, in a bitter-sweet way, with the public pronouncement, in the gladiator’s honour, that he was a “soldier of Rome”, a triumph of good over evil. It dawned on me, though, that it was such soldiers of Rome who also destroyed our Temple.
 
The distinction between good and evil is often seen as black-and-white. Such a perspective, though, can be most deceiving. The appropriateness of a value determination is often dependent on the circumstances. As expressed in the words of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), there is a time for everything. A certain behaviour may, as such, be correct in one set of circumstances while clearly inappropriate in other situations. It may be that striving to be a ‘soldier of Rome’ in certain circumstances may be good but, in other situations, it may be a powerful reflection of evil. Properly meeting such determinations is a trial we must all face.
 
A further challenge that emerges from this recognition is the reality that a person can also forge his/her own determination of right-and-wrong as he/she wishes, through subjective analysis and a sub-conscious adjustment of the facts as desired. A personal determination of good and evil can, thus, be subject to one’s individual perspective. It is, as such, that the Talmud informs us that we should recognize that people will, generally, not see themselves as evil-doers, regardless of their objective behaviour. One will find a justification for oneself no matter what. The reality is, as such, that even the most evil of individuals will often not only not see their actions as evil but, in fact, will almost always find a way to define their behaviour as reflective of, even, the greatest good.
 
This insight is most important when confronting evil. Too many times, it is easier for us to simply describe malevolent behaviour as the actualization of some grotesque drives but in doing so, while it makes the confrontation with such evil so much easier, we miss the point and subvert any possible solution. It is when we recognize the actual motivation for such actions and their perceived expressions as even self-perceived as reflecting good, that we can gain the necessary knowledge in order to combat what is actually more than just evil behaviour but a devious outlook. We begin to understand what our battle with such evil really entails.
 
But then, why do people not do this but rather attempt to simplify the motivations of these promoters of evil by ignoring how they perceive themselves as doing good? The answer lies in the fact that if we recognize that one can mislead oneself into believing that their evil actions are good, do we not then have to also question ourselves as to whether we could possibly be playing similar mind-games? The challenge is thus not only to truly see others but also to clearly see ourselves.
 
This is, in fact, one of the important lessons of the Three Weeks. There are those who believe that blaming the Jewish People for the destructions of the Temple by describing what they did wrong is problematic for it ignores the wickedness of Babylonia and Rome. This is, of course, incorrect; no consideration of any faults within the Jewish nation mitigates against the culpability of these other countries for their evil actions. While there are many lessons we can learn from looking at ourselves, one of the most important ethical teachings we learn from these historical events, though, is how we can mislead ourselves by seeing ourselves as totally motivated by the good. As the historical events surrounding the destructions indicate, we missed seeing our own incorrect moral conclusions. We so wish to see ourselves as good that we can reject the honest evaluation of self. We must recognize the important call of introspection, to honestly question ourselves. This is an important lesson of this calendar period.
 
Recognition of this weakness can also lead us to another important lesson we should gain from the events that mark this calendar period. Commentators also point to how this recognition should affect how we relate to differing viewpoints in other ways. In the same manner that we wish to define our views, no matter what, as good, we also often are driven to see a position or viewpoint in conflict with ours as absolutely bad with the ones voicing such opinions as simply wrong. Much of the turmoil within Israel in the response to Rome sadly reflected such dogmatism.  Questioning ourselves can also lead to re-examination of the other with the possibility of finding the issue of greater complexity and thus demanding more proper analysis. This is not to say that such questioning of self will necessarily lead to a full re-evaluation of any issue – oftentimes one’s original perception is vindicated and the other’s position remains strongly problematic – but such re-examination can also lead to new ideas and better solutions for all.
 
The Temple was to be a place of good for all peoples and, with its destruction, the entire world suffered. Our hopes and prayers for its re-building voice a hope and a prayer for all the world. What we learn from history is that this demands a thorough encompassing introspection by all.     
 
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
 
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