Friday, April 19, 2024 -
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The broken shards

Many know the tale of what caused the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem since they were children.

The destruction of the Temple came through Kamza and Bar Kamza in this way. A certain wealthy man had an intimate friend named Kamza and a mortal enemy named Bar Kamza. He once hosted a party and sent his servant to invite his friend Kamza. The servant went and brought Bar Kamza . . . and the legend continues.

As we know, upon seeing his enemy Bar Kamza at his party, the wealthy man ordered Bar Kamza to leave.

Humiliated in front of all the guests present, including the elite and prominent rabbis of the time, Bar Kamza tried to save face. He begged. He pleaded. He was literally groveling before this man to stay at the party at any cost. Bar Kamza even offered to pay for the food he would eat.

When that fell on deaf ears he offered to underwrite the cost of half the banquet. In a final, desperate gesture, Bar Kamza offered  to foot the bill of the entire occasion — just so long as he was not publicly shamed and thrown out.

All in vain. Bar Kamza was driven out with great insult. Deeply wounded, Bar Kamza vowed to take revenge.

His rationale in the Talmudic source of this story (it is also cited in the Midrash with a bit of a different twist) for choosing to betray his people? The silence of the rabbis who passively sat by as he was being shamed, as he looked to them, expecting them to intercede on his behalf.

But alas, they remained silent.

WHAT does Bar Kamza do? He goes to the Roman Emperor who controls the region (Israel was  a vassal state) and tells him he has gotten wind of the fact that the Jews are planning a revolt against him.

To test this out, the Emperor sends a calf to the rabbis to sacrifice in the Temple as a peace offering and a gesture of support for the Emperor.

On the way to the rabbis, Bar Kamza, knowing he could disqualify this calf as a sacrifice in the Temple according to Jewish tradition but not according to Roman practice, wounds the mouth (some say the eyeball) very slightly.

Sure enough, this presents a conundrum for the rabbis. Upon seeing this disfigured animal a rabbinic discussion ensues about what their response should be in this delicate situation that would have the gravest of consequences for the Jewish people.

The rabbis said to dispensing with the law of not sacrificing a disfigured animal in this specific case in order to avoid all out war with the Emperor.

But one rabbi disagreed. Rabbi Zechariyah ben Avkalos insisted on sticking to the letter of the law, lest it set a precedent for people thinking it is acceptable to bring a blemished animal as a sacrifice.

So the rabbis counter with the suggestion of putting Bar Kamza to death, thereby preventing the Emperor from learning from Bar Kamza the reason for the Jewish community’s rejection of the Emperor’s peace offering.

But again, a lone voice, Rabbi Zechariyah ben Avkalos, vetoes the plan. He reasons that, this too, will mislead people into thinking that the death penalty is the mandated punishment for bringing a blemished animal as a sacrifice in the Temple.

The rest, as they say, is history. The sacrifice was not offered; the Emperor was enraged and proceeded to destroy the Temple and exile  the people.

LOOKING back on this intriguing and very emotionally raw and humane tale, Rabbi Yochanan gets the last word in as his opinion was incorporated into the text of the story.

“Rabbi Yochanan says: it is the actions (anvatunato, literally humility) of Rabbi Zechariyah that destroyed the Temple, burned the sanctuary and exiled us among the nations.”

I can’t stop thinking about this story. Recently, in fact, I am haunted by it. Understanding it fully is clearly beyond the scope of my column. And you should know, in the Midrashic text, Rabbi Zechariyah ben Avkalos is implicated as well. Only there, he is the rabbi singled out at the banquet — and by extension censured — as one who could have protested, but did not.

Forgive me, departed soul of Rabbi Zechariyah ben Avkalos, but in addition to the disturbing, divisive and pain-filled interaction between Kamza and Bar Kamza that is considered to have caused the destruction of Jerusalem, both texts indict you — be it through the banquet itself when you were silent in the face of Bar Kamza’s pain, or in the climax to the story because of your position on the sacrifice — as responsible for the siege against, and ultimate destruction of, Jerusalem.

This past week two very upsetting stories came to light in the Jewish community. One, unfortunately, highlights the Rav Zechariyah ben Avkalos aspect of the story, and the other, also very unfortunate (which I will not address) highlights the Kamza and Bar Kamza dimension of the story.

I know how my heart ached when the rabbis who allegedly engaged in criminal behavior were exposed by the FBI. Regrettably, it is not the first instance this year.

Now, Rabbi Zechariyah ben Avkalos did not engage in criminal activity, but there are modern day reverberations of the story. He was a rabbi, a leader,  a moral authority — who did not act as one. He could have prevented the terrible personal pain that led, back then, to the national pain, loss and grieving that we just sat and mourned for the last 24 hours on Tisha b’Av.

I think we as a community have to just say it outright: something is wrong. Something is broken. It needs to be fixed. We need to make changes and purge and reverse this rot and corruption from our midst that is growing in our community.

We must be more sensitive to the vulnerable among us, equally accountable to the ethics and morals that a religious life demands of us in all areas of our lives, be they bein adam la-Makom — the laws and mitzvot that are between us and our Creator — as well as bein adam le-chaveiro — the law and mitzvot between us and other people, including our government and fellow citizens. 

All human beings should be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve, that of being a “tzelem elokim” — created in the image of G-d. I know I am stating the obvious.

ACCORDING to our Jewish tradition, in the Holiest of Holies we not only carry the whole and perfect tablets that Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the second time, but we keep and hold the shivrei luchot, the broken shards of the first tablets. The broken and the complete, side by side, are in the Holy of Holies. For in life we need to embrace what is broken and try and wrest some repair and renewal from the pangs of terrible, broken episodes.

Broken pieces are not expendable. We keep them and carry them together with the whole ones. For you can’t achieve the whole without seeing and healing the broken.

What is our legacy as a Jewish community? Are we sewing seeds of moral recklessness and smugness? Of division and moral bankruptcy? Of stringencies when it comes to laws between a person and his Creator at the cost of ethical and moral behavior between human beings? A sad legacy of destruction, like that of Rabbi Zechariyah ben Avkalos, who would not change a single halachah as an exception in an extenuating circumstance, even if it meant the death and exile of the very people he was trying to uphold the tradition for?

By the time you read this we will be on the other side of commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem and her Temple. We will have the balm of Shabbat Nachamu. Indeed, it should be the beginning of a  “ . . . Nachamu nachamu Ami, Comfort, comfort my people . . . . ”

Shabbat Shalom U’Mevorach.

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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