Self-Loathing, The Three Weeks, and a Plea to Rediscover Mentschlechkeit

Self-Loathing, The Three Weeks, and a Plea to Rediscover Mentschlechkeit

What motivated Balak to seek to destroy the Jews? On its face, it was sheer terror. But a close reading suggests that something else was also at play. The Torah says not only ויגר מואב, that Moab trembled in fear, but also ויקץ מואב מפני בני ישראל.

The root קוצ, which appears just 9 times in Tanakh, means to loathe. But the usage in this case seems strange; we might have expected the Moabites to loathe the Jewish people, but the word מפני instead of את suggests that the Jews weren’t the object of the loathing, just its cause. Whom, then, did the Moabites loathe?


Commenting both here (Bam. 22:3) and on a very similar phrase regarding the Egyptians (Shem. 1:12), notwithstanding an alternative Midrashic interpretation that was available to him, Rashi explains that קצו בחייהם, they loathed their own lives. Rashi is referencing the passuk in Bereishit (27:46) where Rivkah declares that קַצְתִּי בְחַיַּי מִפְּנֵי בְּנוֹת חֵת, she loathed her life, fearing that her son Yaakov might marry one of the בנות חת.

It wasn’t just fear that motivated Balak and his people. Despair induced by terror led the Moabites to hate themselves, and therefore to act irrationally toward their enemy. Desperation and self-loathing led Balak to not only hire Bilam the sorcerer, but to continue urging the seer to attempt to curse the Israelites well after it had become evident that Bilam would continue to bless the Jews instead of cursing them.

With the Three Weeks beginning, we certainly need no reminder of the dangers of scapegoating the “other.” We have seen it before. No one can spoil that movie for the Jewish people, because we’ve seen the same ending too many times.

But there is an equally noxious danger which has become sharply exacerbated in recent years: the temptation, often due to fear and despair of “losing” the ideological debate, and sometimes even due to self-loathing, to too easily apply the “other” or “enemy” label to someone who, when viewed through a more charitable or realistic lens, is ultimately on my team. (As tempting as it might be for some, no, we can’t simply walk into the metaverse and live in a virtual country of like-minded people.)

Israel and Moab truly were enemies. But fellow Jews and fellow Americans, sharp disagreements notwithstanding, ultimately are in the same boat. Nor can we afford the cultural warring with no solution in sight - and our brightest minds mostly dedicating themselves to litigating the culture wars instead of thinking about how to move forward productively. The rhetoric is apocalyptic on all sides, which is understandable given the context - and also terrifying. Because by this point it should be clear that the inevitable outcome of the current kulturkampf is the rise of totalitarianism - totalitarianism on either or both both sides of the political spectrum, because in the end the only thing that politics is seen as useful for is seizing and retaining power. At our present rate, our social fabric can no longer sustain the trust, good will, and shared common assumptions to sustain a functioning democracy.


I am not naive to think that I will convince anyone to abandon the culture wars. But I do have one ask over the next few weeks, to which I am committing myself as well. When you engage in debates on social media or elsewhere, try to begin and end with a kind, charitable word. Despite their verbally-violent debates, Hillel cited Shamai’s view first, and their children proudly married into one another’s families.

At the very least, please thank others for helping you to deepen your own understanding wherever possible, and, when ending an exchange, for heaven’s sake, wish them a nice day. In short, be civil. Or, to use a word that used to be much more popular, be a mentsch.

Like the Jews in general, I am no Utopian, but nor will I ever consider despair an option. Each of us must put in the hard work to move ourselves, the Jewish people, and society forward. If we manage to take even a few steps in that direction over the next Three Weeks, we might help see that we are playing on the same team as many of our so-called ideological enemies.

In turn, I suspect, we will reduce the loathing we have not only of our ideological opponents, but ultimately of our fragile communities and, yes, perhaps even ourselves