The Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Throughout the Torah the Israelites are commanded to live lives of holiness; the verse above occurs in a section concerned with sanctity in dietary and funereal practices. The plain meaning of Deuteronomy 14:1 centres on the Canaanite mourning practice of cutting one’s forehead, which is forbidden to Israelites.
The sages of the Talmud give a second interpretation of this verse. Resh Lakish understands “You shall not cut yourselves [titgodedu]” as forbidding the Jewish people from splitting up into factions or agudot. The sage’s interpretation comes from his understanding of the verb, titgodedu. It is derived from the root, g-d-d, suggesting a concrete meaning of cutting and an abstract meaning of splitting into groups.
As we read Parashat Re’eh, the fast of Tishah b’Av commemorating the destruction of the Second Temple is fresh in our minds. In the years before the Roman destruction, Jerusalemites began to divide themselves into factions based on social hierarchies, interpretations of Torah and strategies for accommodating or opposing Roman rule. The destruction began with the denigration of individuals and later led to the formation of factions of Jews opposed to one another.
Once Jews saw each other Jews not as relatives and neighbours with different points of view but as adversaries worthy of defeat they provided an opening for Roman conquest. Baseless hatred starts with unholy speech.
“You are the children of the Lord, your God” begins our verse. We are all God’s children. When we demonise each other, we are disparaging our brothers and sisters and failing to remember that each of us is a part of God’s creation. A life of holiness is concerned not only with what we put in our mouths but what we articulate with our lips.