Tisha B’av – Whose Fault Is It Anyway? — By Ben

This Sunday we observe the “holiday” of Tisha B’Av. I put holiday in quotes because the day is anything but a time for celebration. Regarded as the worst day in the Jewish calendar, the 9th day of the month of Av (which is actually on Shabbos this year so it’s pushed off a day) memorializes the destruction of both Temples and many other tragedies to befall the Jewish people throughout history.

It is a day of mourning observed by 25 hours of fasting, we don’t bathe, greet one another, we sit on the floor (or low chairs) and we don’t even learn Torah. Though we lost both Temples, we consider ourselves to be in exile that started with the loss of the second one. Until we fix whatever cause the loss of the second Temple, we will never get the Third. So what was that cause?

A Misplaced Invitation

A Gemara in Gitten (55b) starts with the line, “Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed.” The Gemara proceeds to tell the following story (paraphrased)…

A certain Man throws a party and sends out his invitations. While delivering them, the servant gives one meant for a guy named Kamtza, to another guy named Bar Kamtza. It just so happens that Bar Kamtza is the Man’s hated enemy.

Bar Kamtza attends the party and the Man sees him, immediately stops everything and demands he leave. With everyone watching (including the Rabbis) Bar Kamtza pleads with the Man to let him stay. First he offers to pay for all of his food. No dice. Then Bar Kamtza offers to pay for half of the banquet. Still no. Finally Bar Kamtza offers to pay for the entire banquet. With that the Man grabs Bar Kamtza by the arm and drags him out.

Embarrassed and angry, Bar Kamtza acts rashly and decides to get revenge not only on the Man, but on everyone. He devises a plot and he tells Caesar that the Jews will revolt and he can test this by sending the Jews an animal to sacrifice in their Temple. If they reject the sacrifice that will be proof of the rebellion.

The Romans agree and give Bar Kamtza a calf to send to the Temple. Along the way Bar Kamtza makes a blemish in the calf (some say the eye, others say the lip.) When it arrives the rabbis are put in a difficult situation. An animal must be completely unblemished for it to be sacrificed. But if they reject the sacrifice the Romans will take it as an insult (and in this case an act of rebellion). Not knowing what to do, the rabbis ask their leader Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas if they can sacrifice it anyway.

Rabbi Zechariah rules no, it’ll set a precedent that you can sacrifice an animal with a blemish on the altar. So one of the rabbis asks if they can kill Bar Kamtza to stop him from reporting back to the Romans (a Jew who turns in other Jews to anti-semitic authorities has a special status that would allow this). Once again Rabbi Zechariah rules, no, that’ll set the precedent that putting a blemished animal on the altar is worthy of the death penalty, which it isn’t.

With that the Gemara moves on to another story. But presumably, the rabbis rejected the sacrifice and then Rome began its siege of Jerusalem.

The Blame Game

There were several players in this story. Let’s look at who did what.

The Man
Clearly the host of the party had a good bit of blame. One, he hated his fellow Jew in his heart. Prohibited in the Torah, we’re not allowed to hate another Jew, take revenge, or bear a grudge. (Vayikra 19:17-18) It’s literally the line right before “love thy neighbor.” Then on top of that, he embarrassed Bar Kamtza publicly. The Talmud says that one who shames another in public, causing the blood to drain from his face, is comparable to a murderer. (Bava Metzi’a 58b.)

Bar Kamtza
Okay he was embarrassed and that hurts (as I said above is equal to death) but then he went and incited the Romans. We may think what he did was beyond rational behavior, but the truth is, there is a feeling in all of us that when we are insulted, made to feel powerless, we can bear such rage that we want to burn the whole system down. But that doesn’t justify the action.

The Rabbis
The Rabbis are sitting around probably eating delectable food, drinking exquisite wine and then the Man embarrasses Bar Kamtza in front of the whole party. What did they do? Nothing. In fact, it is from this action itself that Bar Kamtza says, “Since the Rabbis were seated and didn’t protest I’ll go slander them to the Romans.” If the leaders don’t act in the face of injustice, it normalizes that behavior in the society.

Rabbi Zechariah
Put in a difficult situation, Rabbi Zechariah had to make a tough call. But in the Gemara Rabbi Yochanan blames Rabbi Zechariah’s “humility” for the burning of the Temple. Why? The Rabbis offered two solutions and Rabbi Zechariah dismissed them both. His rulings may have been right, but they didn’t offer a solution that dealt with the problem. Though humility is an important trait, if it leads to inaction, that can be just as bad.

The Party Goers
No one is an innocent bystander. Imagine if someone had spoke up and called out the Man throwing the party or left the banquet to console Bar Kamtza. The slightest gesture could have completely changed history. You don’t have to be a rabbi or a leader to speak out against injustice.

The One Who Wasn’t There

Okay so we seem to have identified that everyone at the party has some part in the blame, from the clear offenders, to the leaders of the generation, even the people sitting idly by. But why did the whole generation suffer and why are we still suffering today? To answer that I’ll bring up one more guilty party.

Why does the Gemara say, “Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed?” Shouldn’t it say because of, “The Man who threw the party and Bar Kamtza?” Kamtza isn’t even in the story! He’s just some guy who never got his invitation, but his name goes down in history as one of the two responsible?

Let’s say you know your good friend is planning a big party and you don’t get invited. You’d think after a few days you might call them up and ask them “what gives?” I mean, this is a party that is so big even all the rabbis are there. Why didn’t Kamtza say anything? Maybe he wanted to be the martyr, sometimes we look forward to being wronged so we can lord it over the person. Maybe he knew his invitation went to Bar Kamtza just so he could watch the fireworks fly. Either way, had he said something to the Man, the mix up would have been caught and the confrontation would have been avoided.

But I think there’s something deeper going on. Whether the story happened or not, I think it demonstrates a lesson that gets to the root of why we lost the Temple. The Maharal says the name Kamtza is related to the word kamitza which means to grab. The vast majority of the generation saw relationships as transactional. What can you do for me? What’s in it for me? That’s why no one cared when Bar Kamtza was humiliated.

The Maharal also says that kamitza is connected to the word hagav or grasshopper. Just like back in parshas Shelach where the Jewish people were given the decree that they wouldn’t enter Israel for 40 years (which also happened on the 9th of Av), they said “we saw ourselves as grasshoppers in their eyes, and so we appeared in their eyes.” (Bamidbar 13:33) Viewing yourself as small is an excuse not to act. But we all know that the Jewish people, though small in number, have had an enormous impact on the world. Never think you shouldn’t act because you’re “small”.

Lastly, what’s the difference between Kamtza and Bar Kamtza? Two letters. בר. People will go to war over the most insignificant and petty reasons. A verse in Mishlei says, “Praise worthy is the person who is constantly afraid.” What, should we walk around living in a life of fear? I don’t think that’s what the verse is getting at. There are times throughout history that things get so heated that at the drop of a feather, the world can erupt into chaos. The assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand leading to WWI, for example. No one thought the Temple would fall (after it had already happened before!) To know that anyones actions, even from the smallest person, can tip the scale and lead to chaos is a sobering notion. But that also means the smallest act of good can bring the world back to sanity. And the smallest mitzvah might bring the Third Temple.

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