Friday, July 16, 2021 – ז’ בסאב תשפ”א
אֵיכָ֥ה אֶשָּׂ֖א לְבַדִּ֑י טׇרְחֲכֶ֥ם וּמַֽשַּׂאֲכֶ֖ם וְרִֽיבְכֶֽם׃
“How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” Deuteronomy 1:12
Earlier this week, I was sitting with a colleague at a Jerusalem café when a man approached us and asked us for Tzedakah for needy families. On the surface of it, by the man’s dress and speech, we assumed that he probably was not a supporter of Reform or liberal Judaism. He likely did not agree with us on fundamental values and the application of Jewish law and life. Instead of conditioning our tzedakah on whether he supported our values, we acknowledged that we were amidst the nine days between the first of Av and the ninth of Av and that we should reach out to those beyond our circles and world outlook. A small example of a bigger issue.
Tomorrow night we begin Tisha B’Av, the Ninth day of the month of Av, the national day of mourning for the Jewish people. On this day we mark the destruction of the First and Second Temples and, over time, Jews added a myriad of tragedies to the events to mourn on this day – from the Spanish Inquisition to the Shoah.
As modern Reform Jews, I venture the claim that most of us are not actually distraught over the Temple’s destruction. We don’t yearn for the re-establishment of the Priestly caste nor a return to sacrificial rites. In fact, Reform Judaism developed as anti-Tisha B’Av. We removed mention of the Temple, messianism, sacrifices, and priestly roles from our liturgy and nomenclature. We retitled our synagogues, “Temples,” and re-purposed references to the Temple in Jerusalem to be about local “Temples” and metaphoric interpretations about justice in a future universalist messianic age.
For most Jews, Tisha B’Av is not about rebuilding the ancient, destroyed structure. Rather, our sages teach that it is about a spiritual and social reckoning and self-examination of the root causes that led to the decimation of Jewish society. The classic example given by the rabbis of the Talmud for the destruction of the Second Temple is sinat hinam – gratuitous hatred for one another. We are taught in the Talmud (Gittin 55a-56b) that “Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza,” pointing to the famous anecdote exemplifying hatred towards one another (see the full story below).
The Talmud tells us explicitly (Yoma 9b):
אֲבָל מִקְדָּשׁ שֵׁנִי שֶׁהָיוּ עוֹסְקִין בְּתוֹרָה וּבְמִצְוֹת וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים, מִפְּנֵי מָה חָרַב? מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָיְתָה בּוֹ שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם. לְלַמֶּדְךָ שֶׁשְּׁקוּלָה שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם כְּנֶגֶד שָׁלֹשׁ עֲבֵירוֹת: עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה, גִּלּוּי עֲרָיוֹת, וּשְׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים.
“However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of loving-kindness, and that they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed during the time of the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to gratuitous hatred. This comes to teach you that the sin of hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed.”
We are, sadly, not lacking examples of senseless hatred in our communities, of Jews hating one another. However, later in the story, we learn an additional lesson. The sages tell of a rabbi, Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas, who refused to offer a blemished sacrifice. The refusal to see the bigger picture, to choose when to be flexible and the unbending rigidity of Jewish law was a cause of the war that led to the great destruction.
In our communities today, no subject has been more controversial and divisive than our people’s discourse around Israel, the Palestinians, and how we should speak to one another. This discourse has led to some claiming that others are “outside of the pro-Israel Jewish tent” and accusations of even worse offenses.
Today we should ask ourselves and each other: How can we use Tisha B’Av as a way to move beyond our unbending rigidity and close-minded hatred and intolerance of other Jews? What would it take for us to listen to those whose opinions are abhorrent to us and who we regard as a real threat to the safety and security of the Jewish State? And after we ask about listening attentively to them, we should ask: how can we approach or speak to those whose positions and opinions threaten our moral fabric and fly in the face of everything that we believe is just and true?
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b) offers us a solution and a challenge:
אשר יעשון זו לפנים משורת הדין דאמר ר’ יוחנן לא חרבה ירושלים אלא על שדנו בה דין תורה אלא דיני דמגיזתא לדיינו אלא אימא שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה ולא עבדו לפנים משורת הדין:
“It was taught …: “… they must act” beyond the strict and narrow letter of the law, as Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Jerusalem was destroyed only for the fact that they adjudicated cases only on the basis of strict Torah law in the city. The Gemara asks: … what should they have done? Should they have adjudicated cases on the basis of arbitrary decisions? Rather, say: That they established their rulings on the basis of strict Torah law did not go beyond the letter of the law.”
Let us take the challenge and go beyond the letter of the law. I am sure each one of us knows someone or is in contact with someone, with whom we do not see eye to eye. On this Tisha B’Av, in addition to reading Megilat Eicha that recounts the destruction of Jerusalem and fasting, we might take the opportunity to go out of our way to reach out to someone, to listen, internalize, and then talk. Let’s start with listening, going beyond the surface of the matter, and hearing how they reached their conclusions. I hope that we can begin to hear each other more deeply, go beyond the “letter of the law,” loosen our rigidity and avoid another destruction.
Shabbat Shalom and wishing you a meaningful Tisha B’Av,
*Talmud Gittin 56a:
The emperor went and sent with him a choice three-year-old calf. While bar Kamtza was coming with the calf to the Temple, he made a blemish on the calf’s upper lip. And some say he made the blemish on its eyelids, a place where according to us, i.e., halakha, it is a blemish, but according to them, gentile rules for their offerings, it is not a blemish. Therefore, when bar Kamtza brought the animal to the Temple, the priests would not sacrifice it on the altar since it was blemished, but they also could not explain this satisfactorily to the gentile authorities, who did not consider it to be blemished.
The blemish notwithstanding, the Sages thought to sacrifice the animal as an offering due to the imperative to maintain peace with the government. Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas said to them: If the priests do that, people will say that blemished animals may be sacrificed as offerings on the altar. The Sages said: If we do not sacrifice it, then we must prevent bar Kamtza from reporting this to the emperor. The Sages thought to kill him so that he would not go and speak against them. Rabbi Zekharya said to them: If you kill him, people will say that one who makes a blemish on sacrificial animals is to be killed. As a result, they did nothing, bar Kamtza’s slander was accepted by the authorities, and consequently the war between the Jews and the Romans began.