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Torah Advice on Responding to Negative Emotions

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We are presently in the time known as The Three Weeks (this year July 24 – Aug. 14), the saddest period on the Jewish calendar. These weeks are bounded by the 17th day of Tammuz – the date on which the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans – and the 9th day of Av – the date on which both Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. It is thus obvious why these weeks form the gloomiest time of the year. All the sufferings of our people in the Diaspora are a result of the tragedies of these events.
 
The Talmud raises the question of why the Jewish People were so punished with the destruction of the Temples and the Diasporas that followed these events. While the Talmud explains that the First Temple was destroyed because the people violated commandments within the three cardinal categories of sin (idolatry, murder, extreme promiscuity), it maintains that the Second Temple was destroyed because of one sphere of transgression which the Talmud refers to as sinat chinum. [Ed: commonly spelled sinat chinam]
 
Because of this sinat chinum, our Temple was destroyed and we were thrown into an exile that has lasted close to two thousand years. Given that the first exile, as a result of the destruction of the First Temple, only lasted seventy years – and that was in Divine response to violations of these noted cardinal sins -- the commentators further point out how terrible sinat chinum must really be in that it led to a much, much harsher punishment. What, though, is sinat chinum?
 
The literal translation of sinat chinum would be ‘free hatred’. The term, therefore, is generally translated as baseless hatred; it is hatred that is free in that it really has no basis. It would thus be such hatred without cause that existed in the last years of the Second Temple which would have been the problem. However, a review of the various episodes that the Talmud presents to exemplify these problems which existed in interpersonal relationships in this time period shows that the negative emotions that existed actually did have some basis.
 
Clearly, it was still vastly inappropriate for such emotions to have led to the resultant vindictive behaviour which, in turn, led to the destruction, but it is still difficult to declare this hatred as without basis. This has led many to simply declare that the problem was simply the existence of any hatred. The problem was not just baseless hatred but any hatred; such negative emotions are always wrong. But is this true? Are we not commanded to hate evil?
 
A further problem arises with the understanding of sinat chinum as baseless hatred. Does a person really have control over their emotions? Emotions are usually a reaction to some stimulus and, as such, can a person truly be commanded not to have such negative reactions? Perhaps we can instruct someone what to do if they feel such emotions – perhaps broaden our teachings of how one can respond to various stimuli and thereby avoid such reactions -- but it is truly difficult to declare such feelings as always inherently wrong. People feel what they feel. It is difficult to simply tell someone not to feel what they are already feeling. One, though, can instruct someone how to properly respond to their feelings, including their negative emotions. You can educate someone in what to do when they are feeling hate.
 
This has led me, after a review of many Rabbinic sources regarding sinat chinum, to translate this term not as ‘baseless hatred’ but, rather, as ‘purposeless hatred’. (For further study, please see my article Defining Sinat Chinum.)
 
The call of the Torah is to be conscious, careful and positively proactive in our responses to our negative emotions! One should not let hate fester within oneself. This is why we are specifically told not to maintain hatred in our hearts (Vayikra 19:17). We are to use such emotions also to further the good, through uncovering the underlying problems that may have led to such negativity and trying to correct them.
 
This would obviously entail confronting, in a proper and constructive manner, one’s issues with others, but it would also include investigating possible problems within ourselves. We cannot just ignore our negative emotions or allow them to simply find release in a destructive manner. That would be sinat chinum, purposeless hatred. In contradistinction to this, we must deal with our negative emotions properly, directing them to good results, directing even hatred purposefully.
 
It is, in this regard, that we can truly understand sinat chinum and its definition as the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent exile. There was interpersonal hatred that was left to its own toxicity. People chose to avoid the issues which demanded assessment and resolution. The result was a destruction of the society. During The Three Weeks, we are called upon to focus on this malice. Our challenge must be, especially during this time period, to examine and correct this fault.
 
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