Rereading a famous story: Shabbat before the 9th of Av, 2020

My quiet hometown Haifa recently made the news for renaming one of its streets Umm Kulthum, after one of Egypt’s greatest singers, songwriters, and film actresses, known as “The Voice of Egypt”, “Egypt’s Fourth Pyramid” and Kawkab al-Sharq, the “Star of the East”. So far, sounds like a great gesture.

But of course, things get more complicated: According to some, the street used was not nameless prior, but rather known as Lochamei Hageta’ot, “The Ghettos’ Fighters”, after WWII fighters of the various ghettoes. In addition, in May 1967, just before the Six-Day War, she was heard on Radio Cairo singing “slaughter, slaughter, slaughter and have no pity…” towards Israel as well as other war songs. Haifa municipality claimed this is a huge step “forward” and a “model for joint life”. And I’m left wondering: where is “forward”? how far do we go for “joint life” before it’s someone else’s life altogether? Curious to hear / see your thoughts on this specific topic and in general… where does one end, and one begins? How far do we go??

We are in the days before the 9th of Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the Temple. We’re at a loss: why do we need such a harsh day? What for? Especially now, when we have the State of Israel? “This is the 3rd Temple”, insists my friend, “that’s it! We’re done!” I nod, half smiling, fully aware that this coming Thursday, I’ll probably still fast (unless the Messiah comes – ?) and she – won’t.

After the Temple was destroyed, we got busy surviving. Maybe as first, hesitatingly, but then, it took over and occupied our whole being. As such, we got used to a new way of living, and – slowly forgot what it was like before. There’s a slogan now in Israel: “Normalcy under Corona”…. Hahaha, there is no such thing! But we call it that, and start forgetting a time when people hugged each other because they were so happy to see each other; because they wanted to support a friend; a time when we invited friends over without worrying who’s coming; attended crowded concerts; passed someone in the street without crossing over to the other side because the person forgot their mask; wished people “bless you”… and on and on.

Since the Temple was destroyed, says Rabban Shimon son of Gamliel, “the taste has been removed from fruit” (Sota 48a-b). The taste! From fruit!! Not some irrelevant building far away where a strange cast of priests sacrifices poor animals, but our fruit have been impacted too! The taste we have now, is not the real one. It, has been masked too; we can’t get to the core of things. “There is no day that does not include some curse, something bad, and even the dew, does not fulfill its full potential to give blessing to the plants”. Do we??

One of the most retold stories during these days is about “Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza”. Following our joint learning earlier this week, I’m think about the whole thing as a metaphor. The story, which appears in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, 55b, along with many other Destruction stories, tells about a wealthy man who sent his servant to invite his friend, Kamtza. However, the servant mistakenly invited Bar Kamtza, who was his enemy. Upon seeing the despised Bar Kamtza at his party, the host orders him to leave. Bar Kamtza, attempting to save face, offers to pay for the food he eats, then for half of the expenses of the party, and then for the entire party. The hosts refuses and finally removes him from the party.

Feeling humiliated, Bar Kamtza vows revenge against the rabbis present who allowed for this to take place. He tells the Roman Caesar that the Jews are planning a revolt, and suggests the Caesar send an animal to be sacrificed as a peace offering in the Temple in Jerusalem along with Bar Kamtza, to see if they accept his gift. However, on the way, Bar Kamtza purposefully slightly wounds the animal. He does so in the animal’s mouth and in a way that would disqualify it as a Jewish sacrifice but not as a Roman offering.

Upon seeing the disfigured animal, some rabbis advocate offering it anyway to avoid war, but Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos objects, claiming that people will begin to offer blemished animals. They then suggest putting Bar Kamtza to death, but Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos again refuses, because this is not the mandated penalty for intentionally bringing a disqualified offering to the Temple…

Rabbi Yochanan says because of the “over-piety” of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos the Temple was set in flames and destroyed, and the Jews were exiled from the Land.

The Caesar, incensed, sent an army to lay siege to Jerusalem, eventually leading to its downfall in 70 C.E. Many suggest that this story’s moral is against the internal tensions among the Jewish people and how those intensified the external threat from the Roman conquerors.

But maybe there’s more.

The term “bar” suggests “son of”. Therefore, while this may be a story about two different people, it can also be about a father and son[1]. Very interestingly, Kamtza elsewhere in the Talmud means chagav, a grasshopper. This word should ring a bell: It appears in the story of the returning spies telling how “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33). So is Kamtza here a derogatory reference? to… us??

If so, can it be that the host – The Host; the Lord of Hosts? He’s the one holding this “party”, and He decides who’s in and who’s out. The way to the Host’s heart is not through money. “Generous” as this sounds, it’s too little, too late. The way to be at Host’s party, is to be His “friend”. Bar Kamtza’s father, i.e. our forefathers, maybe even the desert’s generation, were His “friends”; they were most welcome at the party; so much so, that He sent a special messenger to get the father; and the son, knowing this is his father’s Friend, didn’t even ask the father, hey, aren’t you going? Is everything ok?

How oblivious can we be?? Haughtiness got us to the party, and the same quality – threw us out. We think it’s a “mistake” we can just cover with “money”? We “offered” to “pay”, and accused the host, as if we appreciate people who try to pay their way out of basic responsibilities! And the same limb, our mouth, speaking wrongly, is what was harmed in the sacrifice, causing further and further damage. Is it really “the rabbis” who did this, as we thought initially, or did we bring it upon ourselves?

The Temple, teach us the sages – the same sages who watched this happen and couldn’t do anything to reverse the horrible downward spiral – was destroyed because of too much “piety” – of lack of attention to the correct “small things”. Instead of philosophizing about irrelevant halachot regarding the sacrificial system which was soon to be abolished, what was needed was love and respect for another (here, the father); Love and respect for the host (Host).

The Torah should have ended sooner: at the end of the Book of Numbers at the latest, or maybe even before (Numbers 10), but we’re here to listen again. Maybe there’s some things we’ve missed along the way. Right before the 9th of Av we open the 5th Book, to check again who we are and what we need to do.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] The Maharsha indeed notes that they were father and son and therefore that was the reason for the confusion: the son thought that the inviter wanted to make peace with him since he was his father’s friend. Josephus in his autobiography “Vita”, p.37, mentions a certain Kompsos son of Kompsos as a rich moderate leader in Tiberias. It might be the same man.


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2 Responses to Rereading a famous story: Shabbat before the 9th of Av, 2020

  1. Trachtman, Howard says:

    Terrific again
    Shabbat shalom



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