Printed from

To Be Or Not To Be?

Friday, 3 July, 2015 - 12:05 pm

Mr. Dewey was briefing his client, who was about to testify in his own defense.

"You must swear to tell the complete truth. Do you understand?"

The client replied that he did.

Then lawyer then asked, "Do you know what will happen if you don't tell the truth?"

The client looked back and said, "I imagine that our side will win."

This Shabbat is the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz. This is when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, enabling the enemy's conquest of the city, which led to the destruction of the Holy Temple three weeks later on the 9th of Av. Ever since, 17 Tammuz 17 and 9 Av are both fast days, and the three week period between them is a time of sadness and mourning. This year, the fasts are pushed off to Sunday.

Why was Jerusalem destroyed?

The Talmud states:

The Temple was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. There was a certain individual who was friendly with Kamtza, but who was an enemy of Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast and said to his servant, "Go and bring Kamtza [my friend] to my feast," but the servant brought Bar-Kamtza [the enemy] instead.

The one who made the feast found Bar-Kamtza seated there. He said to him, "Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and get out!" Bar-Kamtza said, "Since I'm here already, let me stay, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink."

The host responded, "No!" 
"I will pay for half the cost of the feast," Bar-Kamtza pleaded. 
"No!" "I will pay the entire cost of the feast!"

"No!" And he seized Bar-Kamtza, stood him up, and threw him out!

Bar-Kamtza thought, "Since the Rabbis were there, saw the whole thing, and were silent, obviously they had no objection to my embarrassment! I'll go now, and slander them to the king."

Bar-Kamtza went to the king and declared, "The Jews have rebelled against you!"

This false report eventually caused the Romans to launch their war and destroy the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This took place in the year 70 BCE.

What an insane story. How could the host of the party behave this way? Even if he was his enemy, he could have ignored him-especially since he was willing to pay the entire bill! I would not mind being in that situation: Imagine you made a wedding which cost you $100,000. Your sworn enemy offers to foot the bill if you let him stay and eat. That’s not a bad deal at all! It’s actually great: Let your enemy lose his money for your party. Why did the host in our story not accept the offer? And why indeed did none of the rabbis protest?

The answers to these questions will be understood by first exploring another deeply enigmatic Talmudic statement. The rabbis were discussing the moral reasons for Jerusalem's destruction:

Rabbi Yochanan said that Jerusalem was destroyed because people insisted on enforcing their rights based on Torah law, rather than accepting the concept of going beyond the letter of the law.

This is rather disturbing. Is Torah law corrupt and evil?  Is it immoral and promiscuous? Why is it so bad that people insisted on following the law of the Torah? On the contrary, you would think it is the greatest praise for a society if it is diligent in maintaining the law! How can the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yochanan, who dedicated his life to teach Torah law, suggest that Jerusalem was destroyed because of Torah law?!

And even if it is praiseworthy to go beyond the letter of the law, does its absence warrant destruction of a city?

Furthermore, the Talmud states elsewhere that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless animosity between Jews, yet here Rabbi Yochanan suggests that the cause for the destruction of Jerusalem was completely different: because the people did not go beyond the letter of the law. How do we reconcile the two observations of the Talmud?

Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad, gives a fabulous explanation.

The Midrash is perturbed by the words in Genesis where G-d says, "Let us make Adam (man) in our image and our likeness." To whom did He say this? G-d consulted His Heavenly angels—angels are metaphors for spiritual emotions and characteristics—before creating the first human being.

The attribute of Kindness voted that G-d should create man, because a human being would perform acts of kindness. There is a streak of goodness and compassion within human beings. The attribute of righteousness was also pro-human life, as man is capable of philanthropy and acts of charity.

The attribute of Truth, however, advised G-d not to create man. Truth said that man is full of lies. People do not stop lying in this world. So, from Truth’s perspective, there is no purpose in creating such a being, as he would embody the antithesis of truth. The attribute of peace, too, was anti-human life, as man would be filled with strife and war.

What did G-d do? G-d seized Truth and hurled it away. And then He went on to create the world.

What message is this strange Midrash trying to convey?

The message is that our universe and truth are mutually exclusive. If truth had its way, our entire universe would have had no business being created, as it is “filled with lies.” Either you let truth be heard and you have no world, or you suppress the truth and you have your world.

Still, what is gained by G-d casting truth onto the earth? Just because you cast truth onto the ground, does it cease to exist? If it is true, it's true whether or not you throw it away.

There is a remarkable insight here. It is not only a beautiful theological idea, but also a vital one for every human being, and for all of humanity as a whole.

G-d, it suggests, was in two minds before creating mankind. Yes, humanity is capable of great acts of kindness, but it is also constantly lying and filled with war. Human beings tell lies and are full of strife. G-d took truth and threw it to the ground, meaning: for life to be livable, truth on earth cannot be what it is in heaven.

Truth in heaven may be all-encompassing. But man cannot capture such truth, and if he does, he will create conflict, not peace. Men fight because they believe they possess the truth while their opponents are in error. In that case, says G-d, throwing truth to the ground is the solution. What happens when you throw truth from heaven to earth? It becomes fragmented and broken up into little pieces. There is not one complete truth residing in one human heart. Instead, there is a spark of truth in every mind, in every heart, in every soul. Truth on the ground is multiple, partial. Fragments of it lie everywhere. Each person has part of it; no one has it all.

There are two versions of Truth: the Divine Truth and Human Truth. Divine Truth is pure, unadulterated, and absolute. It is harmonious, infinite, consistent, and all-encompassing. There is no sugar-coating or compromise in Divine Truth. It is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the sometimes painful truth. This truth is not always kind.

Rabbi Yochanan taught that Jerusalem was destroyed because the Jews insisted on following only the strict law of Torah.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman explained that the people followed the attribute of Truth which told G-d not to create the world: they craved naked, raw and blunt truth. They wanted the brutal raw of law: No compromises, no mitigations. No satisfying both sides by making compromises, because [in their minds] all these concessions are lies.

Yet a society can’t function on this type of Divine “truth.” Truth argues against the creation of mankind. Jerusalem, too, could not survive based on this elevated ethic. It, too, was destroyed because of this demand for “Divine truth.” 
Now we can understand the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: 
Those Jews, including the host of the party, were aspiring to live out “Divine truth.” They did not want what was, in their minds, false compromises, but rather true and undiluted justice. The host of the party stood for his principles. Bar Kamtza was his enemy, this was his party, and an enemy is not welcome at the party of his adversary. He was offered money, and then offered more money, and still he stuck to his principles. No money in the world could make him budge from what he believed was right. The host was a profoundly ideological person, guided 100% by principle. "I am a real person. My friendship can’t be bought for money...."

And yet, this idealistic behavior indirectly caused destruction. Such principled hatred can easily destroy our miniature temples, our homes and our families.

Now we see how the two reasons given for the destruction of Jerusalem—the insistence on sticking to Torah law, and baseless hatred—are really the same. When you can only recognize strict law, not allowing for any compromise, you end up hating people for no real reason. You don’t bother seeing things from their perspective and appreciating where they are coming from. You live in your own orbit, convinced that your truth is the only truth, and whoever does not fit into that truth is worthy of condemnation and hatred.

The Apter Rav said many times that every single Torah portion has an allusion to the mitzvah of loving a fellow Jew.

One of his Chassidim came to him and asked where such an allusion could be found in this week's portion, Balak?

The Apter Rav replied that this was obvious: The name BaLaK is an acronym for the words V'ahavta L'Reacha Kamocha (You shall love your fellow as yourself).

The Chassid looked at the Rebbe and protested, "But Rebbe, Balak is spelled Bet-Lamed-Kuf, and the words in the verse teaching we should love our neighbor begin with the letters Vov-Lamed-Kaf! You are matching a Bet with a Vov and a Kuf with a Kaf to make this allusion!" (The matched letters make the same sounds, but are different letters.)

The Apter Rav responded, "You have been my Chassid all these years. Haven't you learned yet that when it comes to 'Loving a fellow Jew', you can't be so precise about the exact lettering "?

The Apter Rav knew very well how to spell Balak. But he was teaching his disciple the lesson that when it comes to "Love your fellow Jew," there must be elasticity. We have to be a little more tolerant, a little more open and willing to bend.

This we have to always remember in life: Torah is Divine truth. It is absolute, eternal, unwavering and real. Human truth is fragmented and multiple. When it comes to a truth articulated in Torah, there is no room for compromise, because then it becomes fake and meaningless. When it comes to our own truth, we must learn to compromise, to see things from different perspectives and to realize, I have the right to be me, but you have the right—indeed the obligation—to be you.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


Comments on: To Be Or Not To Be?
There are no comments.