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Rabbi Seidel Drash | Three Interpretations of the Bar Kamtza Story


Rabbi Seidel Drash - Kol Nidre- 5774 (2013)
Three Interpretations of the Bar Kamtza Story


          There is an ancient story that explains why the 2nd temple was destroyed.  Here's how the story goes:  There was a wealthy man who had a friend named Kamtza.  As luck would have it, this wealthy man also had an enemy with a very similar name: his enemy was named Bar Kamtza.  The wealthy man wanted to throw a party, and in the process of sending out his invitations, he said to his servant: "Go, invite Kamtza to the party."  Unfortunately, the servant got confused and accidentally invited Bar Kamtza.  Well, when the guests arrived, the trouble began.  The wealthy host found his sworn enemy Bar Kamtza sitting at the party, enjoying himself.  The host demanded: "What on earth are you doing here??  Get out!"  To which Bar Kamtza responded: "Well, seeing that I have come, let me stay, and I'll pay for what I eat and drink".


Bar Kamtza, trying to avoid a scene then said: "Listen, I'll pay for half of the party if you let me stay!" 

"Absolutely not!"   

"Listen, I'll pay for the entire party - just don't humiliate me by throwing me out!" 

But the host was adamant, and had Bar Kamtza physically ejected from the party.

          Now at that party there was a certain Rabbi, R' Zecharia ben Avkulas, who witnessed the whole scene.  Rabbi Zecharia thought, as the drama played itself out, that maybe he should intervene so as to prevent the public humiliation of Bar Kamtza - perhaps he should have a few words with his host in private to convince the host to allow Bar Kamtza to stay.  After all, his own teachers had told him many times: embarrassing someone in public is like spilling his blood.  On the other hand, R' Zecharia thought, I myself am only a guest here, and it's really not my business at all.  Who knows, maybe Bar Kamtza did someone terrible to the host - who am I to decide what's right?  While R' Zecharia was debating all this to himself, Bar Kamtza was booted out of the party.

          So, Bar Kamtza, lying on the ground where he had been thrown, thought to himself: "I saw at least one of the Rabbis in attendance and he did nothing to stop this travesty.  Apparently, these Rabbis approve of such behavior.  If they are the spiritual leaders of this country, this country does not deserve to exist."  And so, filled with thoughts of revenge, Bar Kamtza went and informed against them to the authorities.

          Bar Kamtza went to Rome and said to the Caesar: "The Jews are rebelling against you!"  "Why do you say so?" replied the Caesar, not at all worried.  Bar Kamtza said: "Send them an animal to sacrifice, and just see if they offer it!"  The Caesar, feeling that this was an easy way to find out of there was anything to this rumor of disloyalty, sent a choice calf with Bar Kamtza, to be offered up at the Temple of the Jews.  But on the journey to the Temple, Bar Kamtza cleverly injured the calf's lip in such a way that this minor blemish made the animal unfit for a sacrifice according to the Rabbis, but not unfit for a sacrifice according to the Roman rules. 

          When the animal arrived in Jerusalem, the Rabbis didn't know what to do.  Their first thought was to offer it on the altar anyway, despite the calf's disqualifying blemish, in order to preserve peace with the government.  After all, this was the whole reason why animals from non-Jews were permitted to be offered on the altar in the first place: to preserve the peace.   But Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulas - the Rabbi who had been at the party, happened to be also among the Rabbis making this decision, and here again he had trouble deciding.  R' Zecharia said to his fellow Rabbis: "If we allow this animal to be offered as a sacrifice, will not people then complain that defective animals are being offered on the altar?"  So the other Rabbis then considered not offering the blemished animal on the altar, and instead killing Bar Kamtza, so Bar Kamtza couldn't go and tell the Caesar they had rejected Caesar's animal. But this time Rabbi Zecharia said:  If we kill Bar Kamtza, won't people grumble that we are putting to death anyone who merely mars an animal intended for the altar!  So the Rabbis did nothing - they did not offer the Caesar's blemished animal on the altar, and they did not silence Bar Kamtza.  At which point Bar Kamtza went back to Rome and informed against the Jews, and Caesar came and destroyed our Temple, and exiled us from our land.

            I love this famous story.  Tonight, I'm going to offer three different interpretations of this tale, each of them related to Yom Kippur.

            First, the most obvious meaning of the story.  It's a story about this wealthy host, and his hard-heartedness.  You might think that it's ok to hold a grudge, and even act on that grudge to the extent that you are allowed to publically humiliate your enemy.  I mean, what if the person you hate did a really really bad thing.  Maybe that person spread evil rumors about you - maybe at that point you are permitted to publically shame him!  Apparently not, according to this story.  For the story doesn't bother to mention why the wealthy host was mad at Bar Kamtza.  The story doesn't mention the reason because the reason doesn't matter.  You don't do this kind of thing, period.

            But of course this story is not only about the wealthy host of the party who did the humiliating.  It's also about the Rabbi who let it happen.  This story is recorded in the Talmud, which is not accessible to most Jews.  It's a story written by Rabbis, and aimed at Rabbis.  In the version of this story in the Talmud, you have an interesting verse appended to the story, preceding the story.  Here it is: Rabbi Yochanan said: What is the meaning of the verse (Proverbs 28:14) "Happy is the one who is always anxious, but the hard-hearted will fall into disaster"?  Our story is then presented as a partial explanation of that verse.

            Granted, the first part of that verse is odd: "Happy is the one who is always anxious".  Let's leave it be for a moment, and focus on the second half of the verse, about how the hard-hearted will fall into disaster.  That's clear, and clearly related to the story:  the host in our story is a good example of how "the hard-hearted will fall into disaster" - the guy who is so hard-hearted as to embarrass another will live to regret his harshness. 

           But what about the first part of the verse: "Happy is the one who is always anxious"?  Who wasn't anxious enough in this story?    Well, maybe "anxious" is not the right translation.  I wonder if a better translation, at least in the context of this story, might be "alert".  Happy is the one who is alert to the situation at hand, who is ready to step in when called.  To apply this to our story, the verse seems to be telling us: you cannot just go to a party and kick back and relax and ignore what's happening around you.  Especially if you fancy yourself a leader, you cannot ever let your cares completely evaporate in a pleasant buzz of alcohol.  Bad stuff can happen anytime, and if you're not alert as to your role in a given situation, you will be sorry.  So the first part of the verse: "Happy is the one who is always sensitive to their role in any situation" that's referring, apparently, to the Rabbis.  In particular, Rabbi Zechariah who did not act quickly when he should have.

            You want a time to let go your cares, relax, look inward?  Go off by yourself, and meditate.  Or spend a day in shul, reviewing your actions in the previous year, and planning how to be a better person in the year to come.  Excellent.  But in almost any other situation, a social gathering most definitely included, you better be paying attention to those around you. 

            Thus the verse from Proverbs.  Happy is the one who pays attention.  And happy is the one who doesn't merely pay attention but who is also able to take decisive action when appropriate.

            Of course, what to do, or even whether to do anything, can be a tough call. Sometimes, even in the most desperate moral situation, your hands may be tied.  Syria may be such an example - I don't know about you, but I am thankful that it's not my job to advise Obama on this one. I sympathize with Obama, and his rushing in to draw a line in the sand that seemed at the time perfectly moral, if not, ultimately, neatly practical.  But, as America surely knows now, one can stick one's neck out to bad effect, as well as good.  One can be too active, in trying to help.  However, as our story about Bar Kamtza reminds us: one can also be too passive.

            So, that's one reading of the story, which I hope you find helpful, even if it doesn't yield a clear decision on what we should be doing in Syria.

            Now here's a second reading of this story. I heard this interpretation at a meditation retreat I attended in January.  By the way, it was an excellent retreat, the kind of retreat that I think many of you would enjoy as much as I did - it was both seriously Jewish, and seriously meditative.  The retreat was held at Pearlstone, outside of Baltimore, where TI has had its retreats in recent years.  Three excellent meditation leaders ran the retreat - I learned much from all of them.  One of them in particular, Rabbi James Maisels, I had known when he lived in DC - we studied a little Zohar together during the year he was here.  I found James' talks especially inspiring, and it's his interpretation of the Bar Kamtza story that I want to present and enlarge tonight.

            Rabbi Maisels imagines the story of Bar Kamtza as being a lesson in hospitality, not of the physical sort, but hospitality of the mental sort.  And what is mental hospitality?  Let me explain.  When a person is meditating, or at least doing what is called mindfulness meditation, the goal is to focus your attention on your breathing.  Inevitably, random thoughts come to distract you, and your job is to note those thoughts, and then to let them float away. The goal is simply to focus on the breath, and to allow the incessant worries and the planning and the daydreaming that usually control our minds, to dissipate.  However, some thoughts are so powerful, so laden with negative emotions, that they demand to be addressed.  Pushing these thoughts away is a bad idea.  Rather, one must learn to welcome these thoughts in, to give them space, to acknowledge them, however troubling they may feel. Like an unwelcome guest at a party, they are banished at one's peril.

            So what sorts of thoughts are we talking about here?  One category would be painful memories: bad things done to you, or bad things you remember doing to others, choices you should have made and did not, choices you could still make, but somehow inertia holds you back.  These are all mental guests, thoughts that can come to bother you at any time, sometimes when you least want them to visit. 

            Here are some examples.  I'll start with a silly one:  Maybe you have heard of the game that, according to the urban legend, English professors play amongst themselves.  The rules are simple - the professors go around the room and take turns admitting what classics of English literature they have never read:  Hamlet, Ulysses, Tom Sawyer, whatever.  I don't know if there is a scoring system, but I can understand the appeal of such a game: there's really so much to read, who could read it all?   Might it not be a relief to admit the sad truth - there are great books you have never read!  It might be embarrassing, but isn't it easier to live with a problem if you can calmly confront it?  Whereas running from the problem, not allowing that problem to enter your consciousness, being inhospitable to the problem - that will not stop the uncomfortable little truth from bothering you.

            Now that example wasn't exactly apropos - it was about admitting stuff in front of others, which is not always necessary.  Sometimes just admitting stuff to yourself can start the process of growth.

            Here's a whole category of unwelcome visitors: unpleasant truths about one's motivations.  Are we willing to admit that our motivations are sometimes more selfish than they seem?  Here's an example that I bet some of you will recognize.  Do you ever get tense before a big presentation at work? Or a big project you need to pull off.  Ok, we all get a little tense in such situations, but some of us get flooded with anxiety.  I understand that Rabbis, before the High Holidays, can experience some of this tension, though I don't know that first hand.  Anyway as we get older, we can even make ourselves physically sick with worry - our bodies can't cope with the tension as well as they used to. 

            Anyway, along these lines, here's an ugly visitor one might be tempted to banish from one's mind.  This visitor might say something like: "Moshe - would you even like yourself if you could keep calm in the months leading up to your big moment?  Isn't a big part of your identity tied up with how hard you work at your job, with how much you care?  If you felt fine and relaxed beforehand, you'd be terrified that you weren't really invested in your job.  The fact is, you need your stomach to hurt, so that you can be sure you really care. If your stomach didn't hurt, you'd think yourself a slacker.  You're only really happy if you're anxious, Moshe.  So don't give me this nonsense about 'Oh, how I wish I could relax before these big presentations' - deep down, you need that pain to convince yourself that you're doing a good job."

               Ouch; that's a harsh, unpleasant thought. But if you can allow that thought in, and having acknowledged it, you decide there's even a little truth to it - well that might be good for you.  This thought could give you a new approach to take in your regular battle with tension.  You could spend some time visualizing a different you, someone who was calm before the big presentation, and see if you could even like this devil-may-care fellow.  Could you respect yourself, if you were not in pain?  Of course you could, once you put it that way. But you would never have been able to frame that question that way, had you not allowed the ugly truth to sit with you.  The fact is, our motivations are usually a complicated mix of selfish and unselfish urges.  Being open to this complexity, to the existence of a selfish strain even in our best work, a selfish strain even in our pain - well that can be surprisingly helpful.

            Here's another ugly guest, but a guest that may not be as bad as you think: "You have transgressed against the idealism of your youth.  You're now the very cynic that your younger self swore never to become."  Can you sit with that thought?  Welcome it in, even.  Because if you can, you may quickly realize it's not necessarily so bad.  The 13-year-old idealist might well be disappointed if he could know what he was to become, but what does a 13-year-old really understand about adult life as it's really lived, the compromises a healthy adult needs to make to get along?  Yeah, maybe you should be a little more idealistic.  But should you really be chained to the impractical, even ignorant idealism of the Bar Mitzvah boy?  Allowing difficult thoughts in can sometimes help you to be easier on yourself.

            Here's a deeply unpleasant thought.  "You went into the wrong career."  There could be any number of causes of this mistake.  Maybe you misjudged your strengths and weaknesses.  Maybe you didn't even realize what this profession entailed.  Or maybe you did, but the career you went into may have changed over the years you worked in it, and now, years later, though your job title is unchanged, you are no longer doing the work you loved.  What to do?  It may be possible to switch jobs.  Or it may not, in which case you need to make sure that there are other parts of your life that feed your soul, if your paid work cannot.  But whatever your course of action, you cannot begin it without admitting the unwelcome thought. 

            Of course, if you keep busy enough, you can go years before these thoughts return to trouble you.  Work hard, play hard, don't leave down time for self-reflection, and these painful thoughts can be held at bay ... pretty much.  Above all, make sure you're never bored - come to services as little as possible - so the space that these difficult thoughts need will never be made available.  If only that were possible.

            Not that you need to wallow in these difficult thoughts.  Sometimes it's enough to just sit with them.  Acknowledge them.  That can be enough.  But if you avoid them, throw them out on the street, as it were, you invite disaster.  In the terms of the Bar Kamtza story, you set yourself up for exile.  Exile from yourself, or your best self, anyway.  Avoiding the difficult truths in your life may be understandable, but how can you set about improving yourself, if you are not willing to face the choices and the facts that got you here?  Difficult truths come to remind you of who you are, and who you want to be.

            Often, I believe, we don't allow these thoughts in because we feel that there is no solution.  Why admit a painful truth if there is nothing to be done about it?  Wouldn't that be sort of like getting a genetic test to see if you had a propensity for a particular disease, when there was nothing you could do anyway to prevent this disease's onset?  Why get information you can do nothing about?  But in fact, unlike what is sometimes the case with medicine, with these emotional truths of our lives, you don't know what you can do until you have heard the unpleasant truth out.  We may think that there is nothing to be done if we admit the painful, unalterable truths of our lives.  However, it often happens that when we can finally admit the painful truth, courses of action we had never imagined then come and present themselves.  Invite the difficult guest, and other guests may arrive to help.

            We've all played hosts to these painful truths.  When we can admit them, our hospitality will be repaid, and we will avoid exile from our best selves.

            And now, a final interpretation of the Bar Kamtza story.  You might have wondered what these names, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza mean.  Kamtza, as it turns out, has a bit of a negative connotation.  It comes from a root meaning to grasp a handful of something. In modern Hebrew, one word for a miser is kamtzan, meaning one who grasps on to everything in his possession.  So that's Kamtza - the grasper.  And what about the word "bar"?  Well that word you've heard:  it's the same word as in the phrase "bar mitzvah": here in our story, "bar" means literally "son".  So we have in our story the beloved Kamtza, the grasper, and the hated Bar Kamtza the son of the grasper.

            Which leads me to the following interpretation of this story.  We are like the host of the story in that we too love Kamtza - we love our stuff.  For we are graspers. We want it all: all the physical comforts and conveniences of modern life.  We want to be able to drive our own car wherever we want, whenever we want, and we want enough roads to make that all possible, with only light traffic, and plenty of parking at our destination.  And if the distance we need to travel is really long, we want to be able to fly to wherever we must go. Carbon footprint be damned.  We demand our food as cheaply as possible - we get huffy when we see the prices of organic produce - but the consequences of cheap food - the degraded land, the plight of the migrant farm worker, the pesticides we pour on our soil that leach into our water - that is something we'd rather not admit.  We want a lovely lawn - no weeds - and we try not to look at the little yard signs that tell us to keep off of our lawns, for they've just been poisoned.  We want it exactly the right temperature in shul - really in every indoor space - a little to hot or too cold, and the staff will hear about it.  And if the weather outside is at all outside our narrow comfort zone, we'll just stay indoors, thank you very much. The natural world has become an unwelcome intrusion that threatens the comfort of our lives.

            But you see, the carbon footprint, the pesticides, the oppression, the alienation from nature: this is all Bar Kamtza, the son of, i.e. the natural consequence of our attitude of Kamtza, the grasper.  We want it all, but we refuse to take responsibility for the inevitable results of our lifestyles.  Kamtza we welcome in; Bar Kamtza we refuse to acknowledge.

            For example: if you are a vociferous opponent against fracking, on the one hand, but avoid admitting that your own voracious appetite for energy is part of the problem, you have welcomed in Kamtza, and spurned Bar Kamtza.  Every time you use energy as if it were your right, every time you climb in the car without a twinge of guilt, or at least a consciousness of the consequences, you welcome Kamtza, while you ignore Bar Kamtza. 

            I'd like to summarize my three interpretations this evening, by linking them all to the instruction: "Stay alert!"  Be aware of your own tendencies to hard-heartedness, as well as your propensity to avoid taking difficult action.  Be aware of the truths of your lives, especially the difficult truths.  And be alert to the consequences of the lavish life-style we live. Wake up.  Pay attention.  Take some action, even!


 Have a good year!