D’varim, Tisha B’Av and the Meaning of Justice

My d’var Torah for Shabbat, July 24, 2015.

Painting: The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans

I want to talk today about what I see as a connection between two things: Tisha b’Av, the fast day that begins Saturday evening, and D’varim, this week’s parsha.

I’ll start with Tisha b’Av, the holiday when, traditionally, Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple and the forced exile of the Jews from Jerusalem.

Here’s a story, a fable, from the Talmud about how it is that that destruction came about:

There was a man who was very good friends with someone named Kamza and did not get along with another person with a similar name, Bar Kamza. This man was preparing to host a large banquet. He told his servant to invite his friend Kamza. But the servant made a mistake and invited Bar Kamza.

The host was very surprised to see his least favorite person, Bar Kamza, at his party, and ordered him to leave. But Bar Kamza did not want to be thrown out; he thought that would be humiliating. So he offered to pay for his portion of food. The host refused. Bar Kamza next offered to pay for half of the expenses of the large party. Still the host refused. Finally, Bar Kamza offered to pay for the entire banquet. In anger, the host grabbed Bar Kamza and physically threw him out.

As anyone would have imagined, Bar Kamza was humiliated, and furious. He was angry not just at his host, but at the many Rabbis present, who had stood around watching the host’s outrageous behavior without objecting. Bar Kamza decided he wanted revenge. So he went to speak with the Romans, the occupiers of Israel. He told them that the Jews were planning a rebellion. To prove he wasn’t lying, Bar Kamza suggested that the Romans send a cow to be sacrificed at the Temple; if the Jews were not rebelling, they would agree to sacrifice the animal. And so the cow was sent. But on its way to Jerusalem, Bar Kamza inflicted a minor wound into the lip of the animal, so small that by almost all standards it would not be considered a blemish.

When the cow arrived in Jerusalem, the Rabbis examined it and saw the tiny blemish. Jewish law barred the Temple sacrifice of such an animal. Most of the Rabbis reasoned that nonetheless they should sacrifice it, to avoid a breach with the Romans. But one very esteemed rabbi disagreed. Rabbi Zacharia ben Avkolus said that the animal couldn’t be sacrificed, for fear that people would think that animals with blemishes might be brought upon the Altar.

And so the Rabbis rejected the cow, and so the Romans were persuaded that there was a rebellion in the offing, and destroyed the Temple and began the Diaspora. The Talmud recounts that Rabbi Yochanan taught that it was due to Rabbi Zacharia ben Avkolus that the Temple was destroyed and the Jews exiled.

So the thing I want to point out about this story is that everyone in it behaves badly—the host, Bar Kamza, the rabbis at the party, and Rabbi Zacharia ben Avkolus, and the Romans.  Each of them has real agency, and each of them messes up. We see here senseless hatred, public embarrassment and exploitation of others, overscrupulousness in the law at the expense of others, and slaughter and war. All were the instigating causes of terrible human and communal suffering. And so we learn the urgency of curing our own faults and limitations. This is an important message, to be heeded in many contexts, not just that of Tisha B’Av.

Ok, now shift for a moment to the Parsha for this week, D’varim (“words”). It’s the first chapters of Deuteronomy (also called “D’varim”, since that’s the first word of the book). Moses is speaking to the Israelites, in year forty of the Exodus. Hardly any of them remember the beginning—only Joshua and Caleb are left, of the men who left Egypt 40 years before. And so Moses tells them they must remember the time wandering in the Sinai. I’ve read that no form of the Hebrew root lamed-mem-daled (to learn, study, or teach) appears in any book of the Torah other than D’varim, where it appears seventeen times in thirty-four chapters. The experience of learning and teaching is central to the project of Devarim.

What does Moses teach? History, mostly. There is very little ethical content to this parsha. But there is one set of ethical rules Moses binds up with the history. Explaining how he stopped being the sole judge for the people and instead appointed many other judges, he talks about the ethics of judging, of law:

I charged your magistrates at that time as follows, “Hear out your fellow man, and decide justly between anyone and a fellow Israelite or a stranger.  You shall not be partial in judgment; hear out low and high alike.  Fear no one, for judgment is God’s.”

This passage is about fairness, and it states that fairness has two components: one about procedure and one about equality:

  • Listen to what others say
  • Treat people fairly regardless of whether they have high or low status, and regardless of whether they are members of your own community or strangers.

This too is an important message in its own right, crucial to be applied in many contexts.

Now to bring the two together, let’s move back to Tisha B’Av. Traditionally, for Tisha B’Av we mourn the diaspora, and the absence of Jewish control over Jerusalem. Yet today, I personally don’t mourn the diaspora – and there is Jewish control over Jerusalem. So can we continue to find meaning in this holiday?

I think we can.  It is a tragic reality that there is no peace in Israel, in Jerusalem. And I think one of the reasons for that absence of peace is that there has been a failure there to comply with the ethical strictures of the parsha, of D’varim. Those were, again, Listen to what others say, and treat people fairly regardless of whether they are rich or poor, kin or stranger.  Only if these precepts are honored is there any chance of peace.