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A Tale of Two Truths

Friday, 22 July, 2016 - 1:00 pm


Mr. Dewey was briefing a client who was preparing to testify in his own defense.

"You must swear to tell the complete truth. Got it?"

The client replied that he did.

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

The client looked straight at him and said, "I imagine that our side will win."

This Shabbat, July 23rd, 2016 is the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz. It is the day on which the walls of Jerusalem were breached (in 70 CE), enabling the enemy's conquest of the city, and leading to the destruction of the Holy Temple three weeks later on the 9th of Av. Ever since, 17 Tammuz and 9 Av are fast days, and the three week period between them is a time of sadness and mourning. This year, since both dates fall out on Shabbat, the fasts are pushed off to the following Sundays.

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, his sworn enemy, 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 this feast," his enemy Bar-Kamtza said.


"I will pay the entire cost of this feast!"

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

Bar-Kamtza thought, "Since the rabbis were there, saw everything, and did not protest, they obviously had no objection to my embarrassment! Now I'll go and slander them to the king."

Bar-Kamtza went to the Caesar 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 CE.

What an insane story. How could the host of the party behave this way? Even if he was his enemy, he should have ignored him, especially since he offered to foot the entire bill!

Imagine you were spending $60,000 to make a wedding. Your sworn enemy offers to pay for it if you let him stay at the feast. It’s actually a great deal: Your enemy loses his money to pay for your party. Why did the host in our story not accept the offer?

We cannot even excuse the host's behavior by labeling him a lowly brute, for the fact that not one rabbi spoke up in Bar-Kamtza's defense demonstrates that the host commanded respect. If so, how and why did he behave this way? And why indeed did none of the rabbis protest?

The answer to this question will be understood by exploring the Midrash 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, says the Midrash, consulted His Heavenly angels—angels are metaphors for spiritual characteristics and emotions—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 Tzedakah, righteousness, was pro-human life, as man can do 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 against human life, as man would be filled with strife and war.

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

This strange Midrash is trying to convey that if Truth had its way, our entire universe would not exist, as it is “filled with lies.” The two are mutually exclusive. Truth had to be discarded for G-d to create the universe. Either let Truth be heard and we have no world, or suppress Truth and have our world.

What is gained by G-d casting Truth onto the earth, however? Just because Truth is cast upon the earth, does it cease to exist? If it is true, it is true whether you throw it away or not!

This suggests that G-d was of two minds before creating mankind. Yes, humanity is capable of great acts of kindness, but it is also constantly lying and filled with war. When G-d threw Truth to the ground, He was showing that for our world 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 breaks 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 all around. Each person has part of it; no one has it all.

There are two versions of Truth: the Heavenly Truth and the Earthly Truth, or Divine Truth and Human Truth. Heavenly Truth is pure, unadulterated, and absolute. There is no sugar-coating or compromises in the Heavenly Truth. It is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the (sometimes painful) truth. This truth is not always kind.

In this world, in every human mind and heart, in every creature, we also have truth. But our truth is fragmented: Each of our opinions and feelings has a spark of truth. But none of us has it all. My view has truth to it; my way of looking at the world may have truth to it; but so does yours. Each of us knows something, feels something, senses something that no one else in the universe possesses. Each of us constitutes a unique and singular note in the symphony of mankind. My note is true; your note is true. My note captures part of the melody; your note captures another part of the melody. Together, with all our notes combined, we get the full ballad in all of its majestic beauty.

Now we can understand the story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza. Those Jews, including the host of the party, were aspiring to live out “heavenly 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 more and more money, but he did not waver. No money in the world could make him budge from what he believed was right. Nothing could make him compromise his deeply held conviction that Bar-Kamtza must leave.

The host was a profoundly ideological person, guided 100% by principle. He remained consistent throughout the confrontation. This was no burning moment of anger, no sudden flash of rage that possessed him and took over his senses. He was completely sensible, clear thinking and decisive. "My enemy has to go. That’s it. End of story. My friendship can’t be bought for money...."

Yet, this idealistic behavior indirectly caused destruction. Such principled hatred can easily destroy our miniature temples, our homes and families. For our universe to survive, we must come to terms with the truth that each of our Truths is fragmented. My feelings in a matter are not absolute, Divine and perfect.

Principles are important, to be sure. The principles of Torah truth do not change. But there are also things that people, including religious Jews, may call principles but which are really just preferences, inclinations or stances. It is important to keep that distinction.

The Apter Rav, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was known for his love of the Jewish people. He was known to say that in every single Torah portion there is an allusion to Ahavat Yisrael—the mitzvah of loving a fellow Jew.

One of his Chassidim came to him and asked where such an allusion was to be found in this week's portion, Balak. A superficial reading of this portion certainly turns up no such reference.

The Rebbe looked at the Chassid in surprise and told him there was an obvious allusion—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 Chaf! You are matching a Bet with a Vov and a Kuf with a Chaf to make this allusion!" The Apter Rebbe responded with a profound insight: "You have been my Chassid all these years. Haven't you learned yet that when it comes to 'Ahavat Yisrael', you can't be so precise about the exact lettering?"

The Apter Rav knew how to spell Balak, but he was teaching his disciple that when it comes to loving others, there must be elasticity. We have to cut people some slack. We have to be a little more tolerant, a little more open, a little more willing to bend.

We have to always remember this in life: Torah is heavenly 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 that I have the right to be me, but you have the right—indeed the obligation—to be you.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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