This past Tuesday, Jews worldwide commemorated the destruction of the Holy Temple and the pillage of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 422 B.C.E. and by the Romans
approximately 500 years later.
The Talmud relates a story that highlights the lack of unity that existed in the days leading up to the Roman attack on Jerusalem:
“It was because of ‘Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza’ that Yerushalayim was destroyed. … There was an individual who was friendly with Kamtza, but was an enemy of Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza to my feast.”
Instead the servant brought Bar-Kamtza.
The host found Bar-Kamtza seated at the feast and said to him, “You’re my enemy, what are you doing here? Get out!”
Bar-Kamtza said, “I’m here already, let me stay. I will pay you for what I eat and drink.”
The host responded, “No!”
“I’ll pay for half the cost of the feast.”
“I’ll pay the entire cost!”
“No!” And he seized Bar-Kamtza, and threw him out. Bar-Kamtza went to the Caesar and declared, “The Jews have rebelled against you!””
The rest, as they say, is history.
If you read the story carefully, you would have noticed that the Talmud began with a strange introduction. It stated that it was not only the fault of Bar-Kamtza that Jerusalem was destroyed, but it was also the fault of Kamtza. Now who, you may be wondering, is Kamtza?
“Bar” in Aramaic means son. Meaning, Bar-Kamtza was the son of Kamtza. The invitation was intended for Kamtza, the father, but instead it went to Bar-Kamtza, the son. What this tells us is that the host was friends with Kamtza, the father,
but was the arch-enemy of the son, Bar-Kamtza. The Talmud is subtly hinting to a harsh criticism of the society that they were living in. Namely, it was a society that one could be good friends with an individual who harbored a vicious hatred toward his own son. What does that say about the relationship between Kamtza and his son? It could not have been a very good one.
I think that the Talmud’s message is profound. When I dream of unity I imagine a utopia where people of all walks and stripes get along: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and the unaffiliated Jew standing together.
I think of Muslims and Christians engaging in open dialogue. But what the Talmud is teaching us with those few words of “because of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza,” is that our basic relationships should not be taken for granted. It’s telling us that when we talk of unity, we have to reexamine our relationships with our closest friends and associates first. It’s telling us not to worry about how our family gets along with another family, before we worry about how we get along with our own family. It’s telling us not to worry about how our community gets along with another community, before we ensure that we get along with one another.
It was the breakdown in the relationship of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, of father and son, which ultimately caused the destruction of Jerusalem.
Of course developing unity between different communities is essential. And of course we should strive for global peace. What the Talmud is reminding us is that unity begins at home.
Rabbi Yisroel Motzen is the spiritual leader at Ner Tamid Congregation.