Oppressive governments. Neighbors turning innocent neighbors in to the authorities. The most revered place desecrated. People exiled, fleeing a home that can no longer be home. Parents weeping for their children. Walls being breached. A city burning, and a sanctuary destroyed.
These are the things we remember on Tisha B’Av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, as well as many other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on this day.
Next Saturday night, Aug. 10, as we remember these things, Jewish communities across the world will sit down to chant the Book of Lamentations – a book whose English name is not inaccurate, but whose Hebrew name is much more stirring: Eicha, which literally translates to: “How?”
“How?”, each chapter begins. How have we fallen so far, this city that was once great among the nations? (Eicha 1:1) How have such terrible things come to befall us? (Eicha 2:1) How have we become so cruel, or so apathetic? (Eicha 4:3) Eicha? How?
The Book of Lamentations offers no answers, only the wailing questions of someone in shock and disbelief. Centuries later, however, the rabbis of the Talmud tried to wrap their heads around the very same questions: How could this have happened? Why was our Temple destroyed; why were our people exiled? They offer several different answers, each of which is interesting in its own right.
One passage suggests that the First Temple was destroyed because of rampant acts of murder, idol worship and incest, while the Second Temple was destroyed not because people were breaking the law, but because people were filled with baseless hatred toward each other. Another passage holds that the Temple was destroyed because the people would technically follow the letter of the law, but would manipulate the laws or find loopholes around them in order to act completely immorally.
There is one story, however, that really stands out when trying to answer this question: “How?” It is a story that I believe carries both a caution and a glimmer of hope that it is just as relevant for us today as it was thousands of years ago.
The story goes like this:
Once there was a certain man who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast, and said to his servant: “go and bring me Kamtza!” But the servant made a small mistake; he went and brought him Bar-Kamtza.
When the host found Bar-Kamtza sitting there, he said to him, “Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Stand up and get out!” Bar-Kamtza said to him, “Since I have come, let it be, and I will give you money for whatever I eat and drink.” He said to Bar-Kamtza, “no.” Bar-Kamtza said to him, “I will give you money for half of your feast.” He said “no.” Bar-Kamtza said to him, “I will give you money for the entire feast!” He said “no!” He grabbed Bar-Kamtza by the hand and picked him up and threw him out.
Bar-Kamtza said, “since the rabbis were sitting there and did not protest against him, it must be that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the government.” He went and said to the emperor, “the Jews are rebelling against you.” He said, “how can I tell?” He said to him, “send them an offering and see if they offer it. If they refuse to offer your offering, you will know they are rebelling.” So the emperor sent Bar-Kamtza off with a calf to bring as an offering to the Temple.
While Bar-Kamtza was on his way, he blemished the calf in such a way that it would still be considered an acceptable offering by the emperor, but it would not be considered an acceptable offering by the Jews.
When Bar-Kamtza arrived with the calf, the rabbis saw that it was blemished and could not decide what to do. They considered offering it for the sake of peace with the government, but Rabbi Zechariyah ben Avkulas said, “we can’t do that, because they will say that we sacrifice blemished animals upon the altar!” They considered killing Bar-Kamtza so that he would not go and inform, but Rabbi Zechariyah said to them, “we can’t do that! They will say that one who makes a blemish on an offering should be killed!” And so they did not offer the calf. The emperor concluded from this that the Jews were rebelling.
Because of these events, the Temple was destroyed, the city was burned and we were exiled from our land. (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55b-56a)
This story offers us a reason for the destruction of the Temple. But what exactly was that reason? Was the Temple destroyed because a servant made a simple mistake? Or because a host couldn’t be kind to his enemy and allow him to save face? Was it because a group of rabbis looked on as a man was publicly humiliated and did not intervene? Or perhaps all this destruction was because Bar-Kamtza completely over-reacted, and in return for being publicly humiliated he informed against the Jews to the emperor? Was it because Rabbi Zechariyah was too attached to following the letter of the law and refused to make an exception for the sake of peace? Was it because his colleagues allowed him to silence their conversation? Or was it because the emperor took one man’s word, and overreacted?
No, it wasn’t any one of these things: it was all of them combined. If you read the story carefully, it portrays dozens of people as each being partly responsible for the destruction. Collectively, all of their missteps led to the greatest calamity the Jewish people had ever known.
While this may be a depressing picture, there is a flip side that is incredibly empowering. If you read this passage again and look for all the points at which the story could have been reversed, you will find dozens of moments when one thing could have been done differently to change the ending of the story; dozens of people, any one of whom could have spoken up or responded differently in order to avert the the tragic ending.
That is the caution and the glimmer of hope that I see in this story. When things go catastrophically wrong, there is rarely only one person responsible, only one person capable of turning things around. When a city is destroyed, it is rarely destroyed in one instant; instead, destruction is a slow, unfolding process.
Yes, in real life there may be one primary catalyst, more so than in this story; this story reminds us that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of moments to change the ending of our story, and that any one of us has the ability to speak up or respond differently to avert a tragic ending. It is no mistake that the host, the servant and the rabbis at the feast are all unnamed in this story. Their anonymity is an indication that any one of us could start or stop a cascade of terrible events.
In Judaism, remembering is not merely a mental act. Remembering is something we engage in because it leads to action. On Tisha B’Av, we do not remember simply for the sake of mourning, lamenting, calling out, “How?” We know that destruction, cruelty and the banishment of holiness are not limited to the destruction of the Temples in ancient Jerusalem. They can happen in any time and place. We remember because we want these memories of destruction to serve as a call to action to avoid repeating such tragedies. And we tell stories like that of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza to remind ourselves that we all have the ability, perhaps even the obligation, to speak up, to change our behavior, to seek justice rather than revenge, and to act with kindness rather than hate.
Any one of us has the power to stop the chain of events that leads to destruction. Any one of us has the power to change the end of our story.
RABBI RACHEL ZERIN is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Providence.