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Baseless Hatred: The Great Tisha B'Av Crime
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Bar Kamtza provokes Rome, suggesting to them that the Jews are rebelling against them. When the Roman procurator of Jerusalem challenges him and says, ‘How do you know it is true?’ Bar Kamtza says, ‘Just send them an offering and see if they accept it.’
Now, we know what happens next, Bar Kamtza intentionally places a defect in the offering, and we also know that the Rabbis go through some debate as to what to do. The right decision, according to the Gemara, was to accept the offering despite its defect. Because shalom malchut, peace with the ruling power, outweighs the normal prohibition of sacrificial rules. But we know that the Rabbis did not make that decision because of Zecharia ben Avkulus’ wrong-headed humility as it were, and instead they rejected that offering.
Now, knowing all of this, let’s come back and replay Rome’s reaction in slow motion. The second word comes back to the Roman procurator that the animal has been rejected. What level of anger does that inspire at the national level in Rome? Their worst fears are confirmed, it is craz; the Jews are rebelling, it’s really true. We sent them this goodwill offering; here we are, we are Rome. We’ve built them roads, tunnels, bridges, infrastructures, we bring western democracy all sorts of wonderful things. We’re even willing to have some sort of religious tolerance. We send indifference to their God, an offering from us to them, only to have them flagrantly reject the offering and send it back, no we are not offering it! This is outrageous! That’s the level of anger Rome feels, it’s a 9.2.
Now, if Rome’s rational mind is working, once Rome finds out the truth, what should their level of anger be? Should they be angry at the Rabbis? The truth is the Rabbis weren’t trying to rebel against Rome, they were just caught in these technical considerations. So, the exclamation comes back: Sire, you don’t understand, you consider blemishes something we don’t really consider blemishes, that’s sort of blemish.
Now, at that point, if you are Rome, are you justified in being angry? Of course, you are justified in being angry. What level of anger, a 9.2? I mean the Jews aren’t rebelling against you. It’s not like that they are trying to flagrantly reject your offering as an act of politically throwing off the yok of the oppressor; they are just being small-minded. It’s ridiculous but it’s not rebellion. What level of anger should he have – a 5. But Rome doesn’t adjust it down to a 5. They come, ready to destroy the temple. Why? Because both of those safety valves got evaded.
Rome dumps their 9.2 level anger on the Jews, even though that level of anger is not justified. Bar Kamtza in his evil brilliance has provoked Rome to do exactly what he was provoked to do by the feast maker.
Let’s go now to the fourth episode and the exact same dynamic is at play.
The Roman emperor Nero, according to the Bar Kamtza legend, begins to descend upon Jerusalem. Let’s replay the events in slow motion. When he begins shooting arrows in all directions of the sky and each one of them lands in Jerusalem, it tells him that the Almighty is interested in destroying His house, that Rome, in a way, is an agent of the Almighty to do this. But then he stops a kid and asks him, ‘What have you been learning at school, little Jewish boy?’ And the child answers him with a verse, venatati et-nikmati b’Edom beyad ami Yisrael, ‘I will take my vengeance against Edom, against Rome’. The Jewish people will seek vengeance upon Rome, My vengeance for what they have done.
What does Nero now see? He sees the ultimate expression of God’s anger, God’s anger against Rome, but let’s stand back and look at the anger. Who is God really angry at? Right now, as Nero is descending on Jerusalem, who is God angry at? The answer is, he is angry at His people. He is angry at the Jewish people, he is ready to destroy His house. What level of anger, so to speak, is the Almighty God feeling? It’s 9.2 level anger. He is ready to destroy Jerusalem. And now, let’s say Rome goes through with it. Let’s say Rome destroys Jerusalem. How angry should God be with Rome? Rome destroyed God’s people, but it’s a little complicated, right? They were sort of God’s agents, so He can’t be that angry at Rome. You know, a 3 and a half or 4 level of anger at Rome. But that’s not the level of anger that God will feel according to the verse; that’s not what the child tells Nero. Venatati et-nikmati b’Edom, ‘and I will destroy Rome with my vengeance.’ God, what are You doing, You are taking out a 9.2 level of anger at us! Who are you angry at with your 9.2 level? So the Jews, you are dumping on us. In the words of Gemara, kudsha berich hu bai lechruvei beiteih, ‘The holy one, wants to destroy his own house’, u’bai lechapurei yadeih behahu gavra, ‘and he wants to wash his hands with me? I am getting out of here,’ Nero says. Nero retreats, converts to Judaism.
Who is the hero of this story? Strangely, it is Nero. He is the only one who puts a stop to this. What’s happening here? The Almighty God is mirroring the folly of his children. God is now coming to destroy the temple. Why? For the sin of baseless hatred. This baseless hatred that has created these chain reactions, getting out of control, consuming everything; and now, how will God destroy his people? In a mirror image of that hatred. I will use that same sort of corrupted, baseless rage that you, human beings, have been wielding so destructively. That itself will become the divine agent that I use to destroy Jerusalem. I am going to do with Nero, and then I am going to blame him.
When Nero, in the end, realizes what’s going on, he stops the cycle. When he comes to understand that the Master of the Universe, as it were, is taking out anger on him that rightly belongs directed somewhere else. He stops the cycle. Not only does he come to understand God’s rage for what it is, but he comes to re-evaluate Rome’s own rage toward the Jewish people. He sees the reaction of Rome as the overreaction that it really is and abandons the campaign.
Years later, Vespasian will again threaten the Jews, but for the time being Nero has put an end to the devastating cycle of displaced hatred.
For what is sinat chinam? It is not hatred without cause; there’s always a cause. It is hatred that cannot adjust downward. It is disproportionate hatred, hatred whose degree is baseless. Yes, you should be angry, but how angry?
The Kamtza and Bar kamtza stories highlight a great dilemma for all of us, they hit very, very close. Sinat chinam is not for other people, it’s for us. No matter how good we are, we are faced with that challenge. We’ve got our fail safe mechanisms, we’re not just going to overreact willy-nilly. But sometimes those safety valves get evaded and the best of us can become victims of baseless hatred. And having being victimized, we’ll victimize others. The chain reaction will continue till someone has the sanity to stop it. What does that sanity consist of? I want to leave you with a notion that it consists of an obligation that rests on all of us.
The first two safety valves are instinctive; those safety valves are good but they are not enough. God expects us not just to rely on our instinctive safety valves but to use our conscious mind. We must not just be contend to ask ourselves, ‘Am I justified in being angry at this person?’ We have to ask ourselves, ‘Am I justified in being this angry at him?’
The level of anger that I am feeling, based on the information that I now have, is that level of anger justified? Or should I be less angry at him? If the feast maker had asked that question, this story would never have happened. If Bar Kamtza had asked that question, that story would never happen, if Rome would have asked that question, the story would have never happened. That is the question we must ask.
It is the question that we have to ask when our little girl spills orange juice on the floor and we find ourselves strangely being a little bit too angry. Did something else happen? Did your boss yell at you at work? What are you angry about? Your spouse forget your birthday; okay, you’re a little annoyed but are you a little bit annoyed or are you very annoyed? Are you really rage-ful? And if you really find yourself being very annoyed, then instead of just dumping on them, ‘Why did you forget my birthday?’ Ask yourself, ‘So what are you really angry about?’ You do all this work and they never appreciate you? They never apologized for the pain they caused you five years ago? Something like that? Well, then it pays to get in touch with what the something like that actually is and have the honesty to be angry at that. Because then you can deal with it. But if you don’t, if you dump it into the birthday, it’s just baseless rage. You have taken the degree of anger, heightened it to an irrational stage, and made it impossible to temp down the flames. All you are doing is provoking your spouse to look at you like an irrational human being and lash out irrationally at you or at someone else as the chain reaction continues.
This Tisha B’Av commit yourself not to initiate that chain reaction. Realize that sinat chinam isn’t something for other people, it’s not something for monsters. It is something that each of us struggles with daily, often without realizing that we are struggling with it. The next time you feel righteous rage, question your instincts. Before you react in anger, ask yourself this: ‘I am feeling angry, yes, but this angry?’ That one question can save you, your loved ones, and maybe even the entire Jewish people, a great deal of pain.
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