The story of Kansa and Bar Kamsa (Talmud Gittin, 55) illustrates the divided nature of the Jewish people that ultimately led to the terrible destruction of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem on Tisha B’av.
The story concerns a wealthy host who mistakenly invited his sworn enemy, Bar Kamsa, to a party. When the mistake was discovered, he insisted on throwing Bar Kamsa out, publicly humiliating him. The host did so without according Bar Kamsa even a shred of dignity, despite three attempts to make peace.
Nor did the other guests, including prominent rabbis, raise any objections to the host’s cruelties. Bar Kamsa swore to get his revenge. He informed the Roman Caesar that the nation of Israel was plotting a revolt against him. Bar Kamsa’s traitorous actions led to the destruction of Jerusalem and to the deaths of many innocent people.
The Talmud does not mean to say that this incident alone led to the tragedy and destruction. It implies that this type of situation was rampant in Jewish society of that time. Neighbors disliked neighbors and would refuse to help them no matter how minimally. The Jewish values of kindness and compassion that held society together were quickly eroding.
Though his actions certainly went way beyond the pale, Bar Kamsa was not wrong to criticize the rabbis for not intervening. The Talmud says that embarrassing a person in public is akin to murder. The rabbis have a responsibility to set a tone of proper discourse and behavior. They should have spoken to the host or left the gathering in protest.
Perhaps they were afraid and did not want to alienate the wealthy host. Perhaps they feared losing their relationship with him. Nevertheless, they ought to have exerted leadership and failed to do so.
We ascribe the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to sinat chinam — blind, baseless hatred. Our society must be built on a foundation of true Jewish values. Instead of sinat chinam, we must substitute ahavat chinam — acceptance and tolerance of all people, and the belief in the sanctity and dignity of every human being.
If we can do that, we can rectify some of the major errors that led to Tisha B’Av. If we can do that, we can help bring the Moshiach. May that blessed day come soon.
Rabbi Eli Seidman is the director of pastoral services at the Jewish Association on Aging.