Strange Story

It’s one of those things you’ll hear over and over in the Jewish world: Causeless hatred destroyed Jerusalem. Fix the hatred and rebuild Jerusalem.

The source is a passage in the Talmud, Yoma 9b. First, the Talmud describes the situation that brought about the first destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonians: rampant idolatry, wanton murder and flagrant adultery. And then the sages ask—and you can feel the agony and anguish in the question:

And the Second Temple, when they were occupied in Torah, mitzvahs and acts of kindness—why was it destroyed?

Because there existed causeless hatred.

It was a time when study of Torah flourished, and along with that, many, many good deeds.

Read that carefully. The Jews weren’t just learning Torah, not just doing mitzvahs, not just acting out kindness—they were fully occupied in these things. From all the evidence we have, it was a time when study of Torah flourished, and along with that, many, many good deeds. People were caring for each other. Not exactly the bloodbath of in-fighting and hatred that one might expect to bring upon us almost two thousand years of exile.

The puzzle gets deeper. There’s one (just one) story to illustrate that causeless hatred, found in the Talmud, Gittin 55b:

Due to Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.

You see, there was a man who had a friend named Kamtza, and a rival named Bar Kamtza. This man made a feast. He told his attendant, “Go and bring me Kamtza!”

But instead, his attendant brought Bar Kamtza.

When this man found Bar Kamtza sitting at his feast, he said to him, “Just a minute! You and I are rivals. What are you doing here? Get up and get out!”

Bar Kamtza replied, “Since I have already come, let me stay and I will pay for whatever I drink and eat.”

The man answered, “No!”

Bar Kamtza replied, “I will pay for half the feast.”

The man answered, “No!”

“I will pay for the entire feast!”

Again, “No!”

And then this man grabbed Bar Kamtza, picked him up and threw him out.

Bar Kamtza said to himself, “The rabbis were sitting there. They didn’t protest. That means they were pleased that I was thrown out!”

So Bar Kamtza devised a means to slander his own people, convincing the Caesar that they were planning a revolt. Within three years, Jerusalem was in ruins, the Temple Mount flattened, and our long and arduous exile had begun.

Now, hold on a minute:

It’s very nice that the rabbis are blaming themselves for the disaster, taking the load of guilt upon themselves. Very Jewish.

And yes, such an act of insensitivity was quite inexcusable.

But let me ask just three simple questions:

One: For this, Jerusalem was destroyed? This was the worst sin that could be found at the time?

Two: The story gives no hint of who was this man, or who were the rabbis sitting mutely around. The story provides only two names: “Due to Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.”

Now, Bar Kamtza may not have been the most endearing fellow to begin with—it’s not your average mean neighbor who goes slandering the entire nation to the Caesar because his feelings were hurt. You might even argue that his reputation somewhat justified the treatment he received.

But Kamtza—what on earth did Kamtza do wrong? He didn’t even come to the party! Why is the disaster blamed on him?

How can exile and dispersion throughout the globe rehabilitate a crime of insensitivity at a party?

Three—and the most important: The punishment must fit the crime—because it’s meant to fix up the crime, to rehabilitate the criminal so that this won’t happen again. Now explain to me: How can exile and dispersion throughout the globe rehabilitate a crime of insensitivity at a party?

Mystery Solved

In our series Is Midrash For Real, we explained how to read stories of this genre, known as midrash. We also introduced one of the masters of midrashic interpretation, the 16th century Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, known as the Maharal of Prague. Here, too, the Maharal comes to the rescue.1

The first thing you have to know is that if the midrash tells you a name, there’s a reason that name is mentioned. The name means something—and in this case, something thematic to the story.

“What is a kamtza?” asks the Maharal. For one thing, kamtza is Aramaic for grasshopper.2

Here you have an interesting creature. It travels in a very great mass (well, certain ones do, and when doing so, we call the same creature locust, or in Hebrew, arbeh—related to the word ribui, meaning many), yet it has no society. As the proverb goes, “There is no king among the locust.”3 No leader, no pecking order, no families—just a mass of alike creatures blown in by the wind.

So, too, says the Maharal, we can have a mass of people that live together, work together, even do nice things for one another—and yet have nothing holding them together other than circumstance. Like locust, they are a multitude of persons, but not a people. Quite simply: They are living in the same country, keeping the same customs, and so, they might as well get along.

What’s so terrible?

Because that is not the Jewish People upon which the Temple is built.

The First Temple, writes the Maharal, was built upon the sanctity of the Land. The Land of Israel demands sanctity—especially Jerusalem, and especially if you want a Temple there. Once that sanctity was profaned with adultery, murder and idolatry, the foundation was gone, the Temple could no longer stand and the people were forced to leave.

The Second Temple, however, was built upon the integrity of the community. The people returned on their own initiative from Babylon and set themselves the task of resettling the land and rebuilding the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. They came as a single whole, as one person with one heart. And upon that Jerusalem and the Temple were built.

They came as a single whole, as one person with one heart. And upon that Jerusalem was built.

So when that integrity of the community began to crumble, the entire foundation of the Temple and Jerusalem crumbled. Yes, there were Jews who were friends. But the friend himself was a kamtza—an ally for the sake of divisiveness. As the Maharal explains, when people want to create division, they take one person as an ally—in this case, Kamtza—so that another can be the foe—Bar Kamtza. And that itself was a sign that the entire system had been undermined. It was a kamtza society—a mass of individuals held together by the wind, by circumstance.

The Dispersion Cure

So how is exile and dispersion the prescription to heal a crumbled community?

Simple, writes the Maharal: Because in such an exile, Jews are no longer a single nation by geographical circumstance—not even eating the same food, dressing the same dress or speaking the same language. Scattered to every corner of the planet, geographically, culturally and psychologically, we are forced to discover the essential oneness of our people that was so easily discarded when living together in one land.

And we have. We have discovered it in such a way that it can never again be lost.

Which is amazing.

Yes, I can hear the protests, “Not good enough! There’s quarrels! There’s hatred—even self-hating Jews! And there’s disdain of one group for the other!”

Those are the idealists.

When Jerusalem was destroyed, there were two schools of thought among the sages—the Shammai-niks and the Hillel-niks. Shammai-niks were idealists. Hillel-niks said, “Let’s see what the people can handle.”

Fortunately for all of us, the Hillel-niks won out. Because otherwise, this exile would last forever.

If you’re a pragmatist, if you can take into account human nature, it’s amazing.

The Oneness Unfolds

Three teenage boys were abducted and in whatever Jewish place of worship I might walk into, for three weeks, they were praying for those boys. From Singapore to Santa Cruz, from the Satmar Shteibel to the Reform Temple, the names of these boys were on the lips and in the hearts of those who came to pray. The tweets, the Whatsapps, the FB likes were coming from every sort of Jew imaginable. People who have never lived in Israel, perhaps never even visited the place cared. Truly cared.

A people that has been spread throughout the world for two millennium are praying for these kids, lighting Shabbat candles for these kids, united for these kids, because they’re Jewish kids. Because we are one.

After three weeks, on the third day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, we heard the news and the hearts of Israel across the globe dropped in unison. Many were angry with G‑d—how could He allow all these prayers, all this unity, to just dissipate into the void?

But it turned out there was no void.

It turned out that those who wish to destroy us had built a vast network of tunnels of terror, an entire hidden city connecting lethal munitions and technology with armies of terrorists, leaking into nursery schools and dining halls of Israeli communities in Israel’s south.

The plot was more demonic than any heard in history: to massacre and abduct hundreds of Israeli children and civilians on the holy day of Rosh Hashanah. And then to attack from land, air and from sea. Any missile we would fire would mean an instant casualty for Israel, regardless of where that missile would strike. As one MK put it, the calamity would have been far beyond anything Israel had ever seen, including the tragic casualties of the Yom Kippur War.

Looking from the outside, it was the abduction of those three boys that set off a chain reaction of events that thwarted a nightmare. Upset at our incursions to arrest the kidnappers, our enemies fired their missiles too soon. We were forced to invade. And as we took prisoners of war, they revealed to us the monstrous plan.

They built tunnels of terror; we built tunnels of love.

But looking deeper, as Rabbi Uriel Vigler expressed so well, we were saved by the tunnels we ourselves had built. Tunnels beneath the surface, connecting one Jew in this land to a Jew in another, one Jew at this end of the spectrum to a Jew at the other—tunnels, not underground, but in the heavens; tunnels, not of terror, but tunnels of love.

A tattoo-covered young Jew sitting on a flight to Israel discovered that the Modern Orthodox rabbi next to him was on a mission—to deliver consolation from his community to the families of those three boys. That sparked something inside him. He asked to borrow the rabbi’s tallit and tefillin. And then he said, “Rabbi, in Seattle, where I’m from, I don’t know where to get these black leather boxes. But if I had them, I would wrap them every day.”

At which point, a Satmar chassid—what the media calls ultra-ultra-orthodox—pops up his head, leans forward from the seat behind and says, “Sweet Jew, if you promise you will wrap them every day, I will FedEx them to you at no cost.”

If the three would be engaged in dialogue, they would probably rip into each other over almost every subject under the sun. But as a people, they are one, with one Torah, one heart and one set of black leather boxes.

And now, we all pray for the safety of those heroes endangering their lives so that our people in Israel can live in peace. We pray together for the safety of every person under attack, because each life is precious without measure. We check the news each morning as though it were happening right here. And it is, because a Jew in Paris, Berlin, Los Angeles or Calgary may be attacked, G‑d forbid, because of what his or her fellow Jews are doing to save themselves in Israel. Our enemies know well that we are one.

Exile and dispersion produced a miracle. It brought out an organic, irreducible oneness of our people that could not otherwise be imagined.

This exile has done it’s job. It’s time now for it to end.