Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Devarim (1:1-3:22) Tisha B’Av 5776-2016 A Useful Error

Moses: I cannot carry you alone…you are today as the stars of the heavens in abundance. (Deuteronomy 1:9-10)

Why couldn’t Moses carry the Jewish nation? The next verse explains, “G-d has multiplied you, and, behold, you are today as the stars of heavens…” Why did Moses use stars as the metaphor and not sand on the beach, which is used in many other instances?

Both the stars and the sand are too numerous to count but there is an important difference between them. When grains of sand are pressed against one another they form a beach but it is the opposite with stars. They form the solar system by being apart. Stars can be hundreds of light years away from one another; each forms its own world.

Moses is giving the Jewish people a focused message. One might think that the reason he cannot lead them is because they have multiplied so much and due to the masses of people which now form the Jewish nation, it is no longer possible to lead them. If that would have been the reason–if it would have been merely a practical consideration–he would have used the standard ‘sand’ metaphor. However, the message–and perhaps rebuke–he imparts is, “if there had been unity–if you had been close to one another–I could have lead you.” Leading any amount of people is possible as long as there is unity. However, when a nation is comprised of stars, each of whom lives in his or her own universe and are distant from one another, then leading becomes impossible.

This week, immediately after Shabbos, is the saddest day on the Hebrew calendar, Tisha B’av. It commemorates the day when the ancient Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. It is hard to relate to mourning something that happened thousands of years ago but when we realize what it represented, perhaps some feelings of sorrow might be stirred in us. When the Temple stood, Judaism had centrality. Millions of Jews would go to Jerusalem for the festivals and the feeling of unity was tangible. If so, why did we lose it? A number of explanations are given in the Talmud, the most oft-quoted (Yoma 9b) is because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred. The following incident, which occurred during the Roman occupation in Israel, is indicative of the hatred that existed in the Jewish community at that time.

Jerusalem was destroyed as a result of the incident between Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. There were two people, one named Kamtza and the other Bar Kamtza. A certain person who liked Kamtza but hated Bar Kamtza was making a festive meal. He instructed his servant to bring Kamtza to join him but the servant, mistakenly, brought Bar Kamtza.

When the host arrived and saw his enemy Bar Kamtza sitting there, he furiously ordered him to leave. Bar Kamtza turned to his host and pleaded: “Let me remain (so that I will not be publically humiliated) and I’ll pay for whatever I’ll eat and drink.” The host refused.

“I’ll pay for half of the entire affair, just let me remain”, Bar Kamtza implored. But the host still refused.

“I’ll pay for the entire affair, just let me remain”, he begged. The host steadfastly refused and ordered Bar Kamtza bodily removed.
Bar Kamtza decided that since the sages there and hadn’t defended him, they too were responsible for the humiliation he had suffered. He went and slandered his own people to the Caesar claiming that the Jews were rebelling against him.

(The entire story including the specific accusation against the Jews is recorded in the Talmud; Gittin 55b)

The Maharal of Prague (1520-1609) in his commentary on the above Gemora explains the deeper context of the story. The episode of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza was the symptom rather than the disease. We mentioned the cause of the destruction of the Temple was sinat chinam, senseless hatred. Throughout this account as well as others of the destruction, there is an undertone pointing out an underlying lack of unity and love amongst the people.

The Maharal explains that the great gain the Jewish people received from Jerusalem and the Temple (Beit Hamikdash) was that it created harmony throughout the nation. From the time the Beit Hamikdash was built, people had only one place to bring offerings to the Almighty; the altar in Jerusalem. They met other Jews when they went there for the festivals or during the year. Jerusalem (lit. “city of peace’) was meant to foster love and comradery but after hundreds of years it had become clear that there was a deep split among the people. The Temple (Beit Hamikdash), which was meant to embody peace, could no longer exist due to divisiveness, which is the opposite of what Jerusalem and her Temple stood for.

The fact that a petty dispute between two individuals–Kamtza and Bar Kamtza– could lead to a national crisis proved that there was something rotten in people’s hearts and demonstrates the enmity that existed between them at that time. A deep but senseless hatred came to the surface through this disturbing episode.

In our times too there is much estrangement among Jews. From supporting Israel to how to properly live as a Jew, our Jewish brothers and sisters have created factions and movements that stand at odds with one another. We would be foolish to attempt a solution in one short essay, but no matter where you find yourself this Saturday night and Sunday, it behooves you to remember it is Tisha B’Av and to think, “how can I be less argumentative and more understanding of Jews with whom I disagree or with an individual who has wronged me. Will I continue to harbor hatred in my heart? Am I willing to speak with someone who can help me change my (perhaps incorrect) incorrect judgment and assessment of this person?” On a macro level, we might not have the solution to the global problem of strife and discord in the Jewish community but if we think about making and implementing small changes this Tisha B’Av on a micro (i.e. personal) level, we will begin to the process of rebuilding.

Synagogues and Jewish organizations throughout America have building campaigns. For thousands of years, Tisha B’av is the designated day set aside to mourn our losses and concentrate on rebuilding. Many have pointed out that the remedy for baseless hatred is baseless love. Although this is a grand concept and it is challenging to freely dispense love, we would be happier and make every community better if we heeded the words of the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandatory Palestine, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935). When questioned why he loved Jews distant from many of the Torah ideals he so staunchly held, he responded, “Better I should err on the side of baseless love, then I should err on the side of baseless hatred.” This, indeed, is a useful error we might want to learn from and bring about in our own lives.

Good Shabbos.
May we all have a meaningful fast day this Tisha B’Av