Shabbat Matot-Masei: Rosh Hodesh Av

It’s not the actual act of violence; it’s the conditions that cause it.

Conditions that we either contribute to,

or have the power to interrupt,

with each small act of our own everyday lives. 

found unattributed on this website: YGB

Today is Rosh Hodesh Av 5782. On the Jewish spiritual calendar, today is the first day of the month of Av, and the first of Nine Days of mourning. Even as when the month of Adar begins we spend 15 days getting ready for Purim with the mitzvah of focusing upon what makes us joyful, this month we are given 9 days to meditate upon what makes us grieve.

The Jewish people focuses a good amount of our communal grief upon the question “how could this have happened?” It is significant to note that our spiritual tradition does not teach vengeance, but looks inward: how did we not see this coming? Did we ourselves have a part in allowing this to occur? Were we blind to something?

The Babylonian Talmud preserves an ancient explanation for the disaster of the destruction of Jerusalem in the following famous account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. It reads, in part:

Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. This is how it was: 

There was a certain man whose friend was named Kamtza and whose enemy was named bar Kamtza. He once made a large feast and said to his servant: Go bring me my friend Kamtza. The servant went and mistakenly brought him his enemy bar Kamtza.

אֲתָא אַשְׁכְּחֵיהּ דַּהֲוָה יָתֵיב אֲמַר לֵיהּ מִכְּדֵי הָהוּא גַּבְרָא בְּעֵל דְּבָבֵאּ דְּהָהוּא גַּבְרָא הוּא מַאי בָּעֵית הָכָא קוּם פּוֹק אֲמַר לֵיהּ הוֹאִיל וַאֲתַאי שִׁבְקַן וְיָהֵיבְנָא לָךְ דְּמֵי מָה דְּאָכֵילְנָא וְשָׁתֵינָא

The man who was hosting the feast came and found bar Kamtza sitting at the feast. The host said to bar Kamtza. you are my enemy. What then do you want here? Arise and leave. Bar Kamtza said to him: Since I have already come, let me stay and I will give you money for whatever I eat and drink. Just do not embarrass me by sending me out.

אֲמַר לֵיהּ לָא אֲמַר לֵיהּ יָהֵיבְנָא לָךְ דְּמֵי פַּלְגָא דִּסְעוֹדְתָּיךְ אֲמַר לֵיהּ לָא אֲמַר לֵיהּ יָהֵיבְנָא לָךְ דְּמֵי כּוּלַּהּ סְעוֹדְתָּיךְ אֲמַר לֵיהּ לָא נַקְטֵיהּ בִּידֵיהּ וְאוֹקְמֵיהּ וְאַפְּקֵיהּ

The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza said to him: I will give you money for half of the feast; just do not send me away. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza then said to him: I will give you money for the entire feast; just let me stay. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Finally, the host took bar Kamtza by his hand, stood him up, and took him out.

אָמַר הוֹאִיל וַהֲווֹ יָתְבִי רַבָּנַן וְלָא מַחוֹ בֵּיהּ שְׁמַע מִינַּהּ קָא נִיחָא לְהוּ אֵיזִיל אֵיכוֹל בְּהוּ קוּרְצָא בֵּי מַלְכָּא אֲזַל אֲמַר לֵיהּ לְקֵיסָר מְרַדוּ בָּךְ יְהוּדָאֵי אֲמַר לֵיהּ מִי יֵימַר אֲמַר לֵיהּ שַׁדַּר לְהוּ קוּרְבָּנָא חָזֵית אִי מַקְרְבִין לֵיהּ

After having been cast out from the feast, bar Kamtza said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, although they saw how he humiliated me, learn from it that they were content with what he did. I will therefore go and inform against them to the king. He went and said to the emperor: The Jews have rebelled against you.

There are several candidates for the sin that caused the destruction of Jerusalem: callousness, hypocrisy, hate. But Rabbi Yohanan blames excessive humility above all, because it leads to inaction. as it does in the continuation of the story when Rabbi Zeharya ben Avkolas cautions against doing anything to divert the violence, from suspicions to rebellion to massacre, because the message might be misunderstood.

Excessive humility is a favorite disguise of the Evil Impulse, we are taught: it will tell you that you can’t make a difference, there’s too much, you’re too small. Or it will tell you you’re too burned out. But we, each one of us, is a spark of the great Oneness, and our every small move does matter, like the butterfly’s wing of a small kindness.

Between Kamtza and bar Kamtza there is yet hope that someone might choose to act to interpose peace. Every day we can choose not to add to the climate of callousness with one small act. In these Nine Days we mourn together for those choices not taken. May we find consolation together in the days to come.

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