Doing nothing can lead to tragedy so make your actions count


Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

Isaiah 1:1-1:27

Religions have a way of garnering stereotypical assessments of their belief systems, and often Judaism is portrayed as morose and full of suffering. Yet even a cursory study of Jewish thought reveals a very resilient religion that accentuates the positive. In point of fact, the Mishnah in Tractate Taanit lists one truly sad day on the Jewish calendar, namely Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) which begins the night of Monday, Aug. 8.

Tisha B’Av is a day set aside for mourning and grappling with all the tragedies of Jewish history, be they communal or personal. The Talmud explains that this particular day was selected due to a series of catastrophic events that took place on this date. Foremost on that list is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the blame for which Tractate Gittin (55B) attributes to Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza.

As the story there is told, there was a man who threw a party and asked his servant to deliver an invitation to a friend by the name of Kamtza. Unfortunately, the servant made a mistake and instead delivered the invitation to the man’s enemy of a similar name, Bar-Kamtza. When Bar-Kamtza showed up to the party, the host first asked and then demanded that he leave.

In his anger, Bar-Kamtza held all the attendees responsible, including rabbinic leadership that was there and did not protest. In revenge, he falsely claimed to the Roman government that the Jews were planning rebellion until the Romans marched on and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.

Yet how foolish was this messenger not to know the difference between his master’s friend and enemy? And why did Bar Kamtza attend? How could he think he was invited? Finally, why does the Talmud attribute the destruction of the Temple to “Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza?” Kamtza had nothing to do with it! Why should he be faulted?

The Maharsha explains that Kamtza was the father of Bar-Kamtza (literally: “son of Kamtza”), and did nothing to mend relations between his friend the host and his own son. The servant went to the right family but got the wrong member, and Bar-Kamtza attended thinking that his father’s friend was perhaps ready to bury the hatchet.

The talmudic text is explicit that what triggered the further downward spiral was that the rabbis and bystanders stood passively while Bar-Kamtza groveled and was humiliated. Is this really what caused the destruction of the Temple? Clearly there were overlapping political trends, societal ills, religious corruptions and more. Why does the Talmud point to an unfortunate dinner party instead? Is it fair to assign the blame for catastrophic devastation to a man who threw a snooty dinner party and a set of passive onlookers, however hurtful that may have been?

Perhaps the point of this narrative is not to assign blame as the sole cause of our troubles, but rather to teach a fundamental response in facing them. In his lectures about Tisha B’Av, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that the basic Jewish response to suffering is not to ask “why,” but rather “what now?” Instead of dwelling on what happened and what could have been done differently, we are enjoined to assess what we can do from hereon in.

We tend to view ourselves as relatively neutral and insignificant, thinking that our actions are unlikely to effect any kind of lasting impression. The lesson of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza is that there is no such thing as a neutral action; everything we do counts. As the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke reportedly observed, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.”

How do we talk at work? How do we react when others gossip? Do we drive courteously? Do we show ourselves daily to be committed to ethics and good values? On the day that marks the tragedies of Jewish history, our tradition turns our attention to what we can control: our own behavior.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected].