Letting Go of Hate

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by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Darkness cannot drive out Darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness.

—Reverend Martin Luther King. Jr.

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

—James Baldwin

To be free, you have to let go of hate.

There is an extraordinary moment in the Hebrew bible, a passage so brief that you hardly notice it, but it may contain the truth most important for the twenty-first century. Here is the scene. Moses has spent forty years leading the Israelites. He has taken them out of slavery in Egypt. Through the sea, across the desert and to the brink of the promised land. He has been told by God that he will not be allowed to cross the river Jordan and enter the land himself. He will die outside, within sight of his destination but not yet there.

He understands this. It became a principal in Judaism: it is not for you to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it. When it comes to social transformation, even the greatest cannot live to see the fulfillment of their dream. For each one of us there is a Jordan we will not cross. Once we know this, one thing becomes important above all others. Leave guidance to those who will follow you, for it is they who will continue the work. Be clear. Be focused. Be visionary.


That Is What Moses Did. The way the Hebrew Bible tells it, he spent the last month of his life addressing the nation in some of the most visionary speeches ever delivered. They exist today as the book of Deuteronomy. This is the book that contains the great command that defines Judaism as a religion of love: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might” (Deut. 6:5). It contains the most important inter-human command: “Love the stranger for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt” (Deut. IO:I9). Deuteronomy contains the word “love” more than any other of the Mosaic books.

That is not surprising. Moses had spoken about love before, most famously in the command, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. I9:I8). Abrahamic monotheism was the first moral system to be based not just on justice and reciprocity—do for others what you would like them to do for you—but on love. What is really unexpected is what he says about hate: “Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land” (Deut. 23 :7).

Those who are held captive by anger against their former persecutors are captive still. Those who let their enemies define who they are have not yet achieved liberty.

This is a very counter-intuitive command. Recall what had happened. The Egyptians had enslaved the Israelites. They had initiated a policy of slow genocide, killing every male Israelite at birth. Moses had begged Pharaoh repeatedly to let the people go and he had refused. Moses also knew that this entire chapter of Israelite history was not accidental or incidental. It was their matrix as a nation, their formative experience. They were commanded to remember it forever, enacting it once a year on Passover, eating the unleavened bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery. All these, on the face of it, were reasons to hate the Egyptians or at the very least to look back with a sense of grievance, resentment, animosity, and pain. Why then did Moses say the opposite? Do not hate them, because you were strangers in their land.

Because to be free, you have to let go of hate. That is what Moses was saying. If the Israelites continued to hate their erstwhile enemies, Moses would have succeeded in taking the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would have failed to take Egypt out of the Israelites. Mentally, they would still be there, slaves to the past, prisoners of their memories. They would still be in chains, not of metal but of the mind. And chains of the mind are sometimes the worst of all.


Religion Leads To Violence When it consecrates hate. That was the tragedy that befell the Church in the fourth century. It took six centuries for the violence to follow, but it was inevitable. Enshrine hate within a culture, and it will remain dormant but still alive and potentially deadly. Christians did not kill only Jews. They killed Muslims, heretics, witches, and sectarians, for the greater glory of God and in the name of the religion of love. Yet Christianity changed, not least because Pope John XXIII and his successors knew it had to change.

You cannot create a free society on the basis of hate. Resentment, rage, humiliation, a sense of victimhood, and injustice, the desire to restore honour by inflicting injury on your former persecutors—sentiments communicated in our time by an endless stream of videos of beheadings and mass murders—are conditions of a profound lack of freedom. What Moses taught his people was this: you must live with the past, but not in the past. Those who are held captive by anger against their former persecutors are captive still. Those who let their enemies define who they are have not yet achieved liberty.


I Learned This From Holocaust survivors. I came to know them when I became a rabbi, and they became one of the great inspirations of my life. At first it was difficult to understand how they survived at all, how they lived with their memories, knowing what they knew and having seen what they saw. Many of them had lost their entire families. The world in which they grew up was gone. They had to begin again as strangers in a strange land.

Yet they were, and are, some of the most life-affirming people I have ever met. What struck me most was that they lived without resentment. They did not seek revenge. They did not hate. They cared, more than anyone else I knew, when other people were being massacred in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Sudan. They let their pain sensitize them to the pain of others. In later life they began to tell their stories, especially to young people. They used to visit schools. Sometimes I went with them. They spoke about what had happened, and how they survived. But their fundamental message was not about the past at all. What they wanted young people to know was how precious freedom is, and how fragile; what a miracle it is that there is food to eat, windows you can open, gates you can walk out of, a future to look forward to. They spoke about tolerance and how important it is to care for the people who are different from you. Never take freedom for granted—that was their message. Work for it, fight for it, stand up especially for minorities, and never give way to hate even when others do.

How, I wondered, had they exorcised the pain that must have haunted them nightly, and led many, including Primo Levi, to commit suicide, sometimes many years later? Eventually I realized the answer. For decades they did not speak about the past, even to their spouses, even to their children. They focused singlemindedly on the future. They learned the language and culture of their new home. They worked and built careers. They married and had children. Only when they felt their future absolutely secure, forty or fifty years on, did they allow themselves to turn back and remember the past. That was what I learned from the survivors. First you have to build the future. Only then can you revisit the past without being held captive by the past.

That is what the biblical story of Lot’s wife is about (Gen. 19:17-26). Messengers—angels—come to tell Lot and his family that they have to leave. The city is about to be destroyed. Lot hesitates, prevaricates, but eventually they depart. “Don’t look back,” say the angels, but Lot’s wife does, and she is turned into a pillar of salt. As a child I thought this was a silly story, but as an adult I felt its power. Look back on a painful past, and you will not be able to move on. You will be immobilised by your tears. You will become a pillar of salt.

The people Moses was addressing were not survivors, but they were children of survivors. Their parents had lived through the first collective tragedy of the Jewish people. It was essential that he teach them to focus on the future, not to look back in anger or pain but to use the past constructively, creatively. The Mosaic books refer time and again to the Exodus and the imperative of memory: “You shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” Yet never is this invoked as a reason for hatred, retaliation, or revenge. Always it appears as part of the logic of the just and compassionate society the Israelites are commanded to create: the alternative order, the antithesis of Egypt. Don’t enslave others, says Moses, or—because that was too much to ask at that stage of history—treat slaves honourably. Don’t subject them to hard labour. Give them rest and freedom every seventh day. Release them every seventh year. Recognise them as like you, not ontologically inferior. No one is born to be a slave.

Give generously to the poor. Let them eat from the leftovers of the harvest. Leave them a corner of the field. Share your blessings with others. Don’t deprive people of their livelihood. The entire structure of biblical law is rooted in the experience of slavery in Egypt, as if to say: you know in your heart what it feels like to be the victim of persecution, therefore do not persecute others. Biblical ethics is based on repeated acts of role reversal: the principle we see in the Joseph story. You cannot stay moral in hard times and towards strangers without something stronger than Kantian logic or Humean sympathy. That ‘something stronger’ is memory. In Exodus and Deuteronomy, memory becomes a moral force: not a way of preserving hate, but, to the contrary, a way of conquering hate by recalling what it feels like to be its victim. ‘Remember’—not to live in the past but to prevent a repetition of the past.

Photo by Luiz De Carvalho

Photo by Luiz De Carvalho

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. He is the author of more than twenty-five books and has received the Jerusalem Prize, among other awards.

From Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Copyright © 2015 by Jonathan Sacks. Used by permission of Random House, Inc., New York, NY.

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