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Baseless Hatred: The Great Tisha B'Av Crime
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Haru gavra darachmi Kamtza ubaal davaveih Bar Kamtza, there was a fellow, who had a friend by the name of Kamtza and an enemy by the name of Bar Kamtza. One day, avad sudasa, this fellow makes a great feast and invites everyone. The great sages of the time were invited, all of his buddies were invited. Amar leih leshameih, and he tells his servants, zil isi li Kamtza, among all the people on my guest list, go and invite Kamtza, my friend. Azal isi leih Bar Kamtza, the servant mistakenly addresses the invitation and accidentally brought in Bar Kamtza instead. Well, Bar Kamtza was his enemy. So the feast begins, and as everyone is dining under the fine chandeliers, the Baal Simcha, the feast maker, is making his way through the guests, saying hello to everyone; and then, out of the corner of his eye, asa ashkacheih dahavah yativ, he sees Bar Kamtza sitting down at his feast. Amar leih, he approaches and says, michdi, let’s see, hahu gavra baal davo dahehu gavra hu, ‘you are my enemy’, mai bais hacho, ‘what are you doing here?’ Kum pok, ‘get up and leave.’ Amar leih, so Bar Kamtza replies, ‘look’, hol vasai, ‘since I am here already’, shavken, leave me, vehivno lach damei mah dachilna veshesina, I will even pay your for the cost of the food and my drink here’. Amar leih, he responds, lo, ‘no.’ So Bar Kamtza says, yahivno lach damei palno dasudatayech, ‘I will pay for half of your whole feast’. Amar leih lo, he says, ‘No.’ Amar leih yahivno lach damei kulo sudatayech, ‘I will pay for your entire feast, the whole shebang, it’s on me, just let me stay.’ Amar leih lo, he says, ‘No.’ Nakti biyadi, he picks him up physically, ve’ukmi ve’afkei, and throws him out of his feast.
Okay, so that is episode number one. The spotlight now turns to Bar Kamtza. Amar, he says to himself, hoil vehavu yasvi rabanin velo michu beih, the Rabbis were there, they saw all these and they didn’t protest. Shema minah ko nicho lehu, evidently, they are okay with all these. Eizil eichul behu kurtzo bei malcha, ‘I am going to get my revenge. What if I can find a way to get Romans involved here? Of course, in this time at the last days of the Second Temple, Rome has political and military control of Israel. And while the Jews do have self-government, they are ultimately answerable to Rome.
So, azal amar leih leKeisar mardu bach Yehudai, so Bar Kamtza goes and he tells Keisar, the Caesar -- now the commentators say that, it wasn’t actual Caesar but it was the Roman procurator in charge of Jerusalem at the time -- the Jews are rebelling against you. So, amar leih mi yemar, the procurator, the general sends back word, ‘Who says? How do I know it is really true?’ Amar leih, Bar Kamtza says, shader lehu korbana, ‘why don’t you send an offering to their temple’, chazis i makrevin leih, ‘let’s see if they offer it for you or they refuse.’ Azal shader biyadei egla telasa, so the procurator says, ‘good idea,’ and sends back with Bar Kamtza three calves to be offered on behalf of Rome in the Jewish temple.
Behadi dekaasi shada bei muma beniv sefasaim, as Bar Kamtza is bringing the animals to the temple, he cuts the upper lip of each of the animals. Now, the reason he does that is because there is a law that the animal that is a baal mum, an animal that has some sort of blemish, may not be offered in the temple. So Bar Kamtza is actually creating a blemish in each of these animals, but he is doing so very cleverly. Duchta delididan hava muma velididu laav muma hu, the Romans also understood this idea of not offering animals with a blemish, they gave sacrifices to pagan Gods and they wouldn’t sacrifice a blemished animal either. Bar Kamtza cleverly cut the upper lip of each of the animals. It was a kind of wound that the Romans would not consider a blemish but Torahlah would recognize it as a blemish.
So the animals arrive at the temple and the rabbinic authorities there see that these are blemished animals, but they also see that they have come from Rome; and now they have a dilemma. Savur rabanan lekruveih mishum shalom malchus, the Rabbis’ initial response was to offer the offerings anyway, despite the blemishes. Because peace with the authorities take precedent over the technical requirements of sacrificial law. They are making a halachic judgment: Peace outweighs these concerns about whether the animal is a baal mum or not. And that’s what they are going to do except for an objection leveled by one fellow, a Rabbi by the name of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulus, who said, yomru baalei mumin krevin legavi mizbeach, ‘we can’t do it. If we offer these animals, people will get the wrong idea. They’ll say blemished animals are allowed to be offered on the alter. It would be catastrophic, we cannot allow it to happen.’
So the Rabbis were stuck, they weren’t going to offer the offering but they understood the terrible implications of rejecting Rome’s offering. So they cast about for another solution. Savur lemiktaleih, they thought maybe let’s kill Bar Kamtza, delo leizil veleima, so he shouldn’t go back to Rome and tell them see, they have rejected your offering. Amar lehu revi Zecharia, but Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulus, the same Rabbi said, yomru matil mum bekodshim yeharag, ‘we can’t do that either, if people get the wrong idea, people will say that someone who intentionally places a blemish, in a consecrated animal, is liable to the death penalty. We cannot offer the offerings and we cannot touch Bar Kamtza. And so they rejected the offering and Bar Kamtza went back with the news of it to Rome.
Years later the Gemara records Rabbi Yochanan, the great sage in Israel, who lived centuries after this, said Anvesanuso shel Revi Zecharia ben Avkulus hichrivah es beitnu vesarfah es heichlenu, ‘the unwise humility of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulus is responsible for destroying our holy temple.’ As explained by some of the commentators, Rabbi Zecharia’s argument was, really, ‘Who are we to make such weighty decisions, to contravene the law of blemishes; people would get the wrong idea, who are we to take the matters into our own hands?’ We didn’t have broad enough shoulders to make these kinds of decisions and it was wrong headed humility that ended up destroying the temple.
But now, let’s get back to the main story. What happened next after the offerings of Rome were rejected? Shader alaihu leNiron Keisar, Nero, the Cesar got word of this braised refusal by Judaea to offer Rome’s offerings. He came to wage a campaign against Jerusalem. Ki kaasi, and as he was coming, he must’ve had the sense as he approached the holy city that he was embarking on a momentous campaign against the God of Israel. So, he stopped for a moment, shada gira lemizrach, he took an arrow out of his quiver, put it in his bow and shot it in an eastward direction. Asa nafal biYerushalayim, the arrow went and fell on an exact direct line, pointing towards Jerusalem. Lemaarav, he shot an arrow to the west, asa nafal biYerushalayim, it fell on an exact line to Jerusalem. Le’arba ruchos hashamayim, he shot an arrow in all four directions, and it landed on exactly the same place, pointing him towards Jerusalem. At that moment, he caught site of a Jewish child wondering on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Amar leih liyanuka, so, he said to this little kid, pesok li pesukeyach, what have you been learning in school? Amar leih, the child said, we just happened to be studying this verse in Ezekiel, chapter 25, venatati et-nikmati b’Edom beyad ami Yisrael, ‘God says that I will ultimately take out my vengeance on Edom, on Rome, through my people Israel’. At that point Nero put 2 and 2 together and said to himself, kudsha berich hu bai lechruvei beiteih, ‘I understand what’s going on here, the master of the universe, the mighty God is looking to destroy his own house’. U’bai lechapurei yadeih behahu gavra, ‘he is looking to wash his hands with that guy, with me. I ain’t gonna be the escape goat here, I’m not interested’. Arak vaazal viyigayer, he left the campaign, went back and resigned his commission and converted to join the people of Israel.
Let’s just understand what happened here. Nero saw two things. The first thing that he saw was that his arrows, no matter where he shot them, ended up in Jerusalem. The second thing he saw was the child that started talking verses to him. The arrows convinced him that God was interested in destroying his own house, destroying Jerusalem. The God’s anger was going to be taken out on Jerusalem. The second thing that he saw convinced him that despite the fact that God was the one who wanted to destroy Israel, Rome would be the one to pay for it. The verse the child tells him about is that the vengeance of God would be kindled against Rome. He looks at the situation and says, this isn’t fair, I am not going to take the fall for you, God. You want to destroy your own house, destroy your own house, don’t blame it on me. This man became the ancestor of Rav Meir. But alas the campaign of Rome was picked up by Vespasian and ultimately the temple was destroyed.
These are the first four episodes in the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza:
The interaction between the feast maker and Bar Kamtza: Episode number one.
Bar Kamtza’s decision to take vengeance against the Rabbis: Episode number two.
Rome’s attempt to send an offering to the temple: Episode number three.
And Nero’s aborted campaign against Jerusalem: Episode number four.
At face value, these four episodes are just dots on a timeline, they have nothing more to do with each other, other than chronology. First this happened, then the next thing happened and then the other one and then the other one. But I would like to suggest that they are more than just dots in a timeline. There are thematic elements here that repeat themselves.
There is a kind of rage, a kind of anger that is been expressed in each of these episodes and there is something common about the nature of that anger. Let me strip everything else away, what are the commonalities of the kind of rage that is being felt in these stories? If we can isolate that I think we will have the secret of sinat chinam in our hands. We will understand what it means in the story and we will also understand what it means in our lives.
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