Safeguarding Jews From Genetic Disease: DOR YESHORIM EXPANDS TO THE SEPHARDIC COMMUNITY
By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
Not only did he not receive an invitation to his close friend’s party – but he is blamed for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple.
We refer to the famous story told by the Talmud (Gittin 55b-56a) that precipitated the Roman assault on Jerusalem, a story of personal animus and irrational vengeance that resulted in unspeakable tragedy. A Jerusalemite named Bar Kamtza mistakenly received an invitation meant for a man with a similar name – Kamtza – who was a dear friend of the host. The unintended recipient, Bar Kamtza, wrongly assumed that the host had decided to move on from the hostility of the past and make amends, and so he happily attended the celebration. But this was not the case all, as the host despised him then every bit as much as he had before. So, as soon as the host saw Bar Kamtza, he was incensed, and, in full view of all the celebrants, ordered the uninvited guest to leave. Bar Kamtza pleaded to be allowed to stay, even offering to pay for the entire affair, but the host was adamant and unyielding, and
Bar Kamtza was forced out of
Seeking vengeance against the host and his guests, Bar Kamtza sailed to Rome, the capital city of the mighty empire that controlled the Land of Israel at the time. He approached the emperor and libelously charged that the Jews were planning a revolt. His charges led to the dispatching of a fierce army that laid siege to Jerusalem and eventually destroyed the city, including the sacred Temple.
This story conveys numerous valuable lessons, but of particular interest to us here is the way the Talmud introduces it: “Jerusalem was destroyed because of Kamtzaand Bar Kamtza.” The clear implication of this introduction is that both Kamtza and Bar Kamtza are to be blamed for this grave tragedy, which we have mourned each year ever since, for nearly 2,000 years. And this should strike us as startling. We readily understand why Bar Kamtza is at fault; notwithstanding the terrible humiliation he suffered, there was absolutely no justification at all for bringing catastrophe upon the entire nation in response. But what did Kamtza do? The poor fellow missed his close friend’s party, and he is then blamed for what happened there?
The Difficult – or Impossible –
Art of Criticism
Before presenting the answer to this question, let us first consider another Talmudic passage.
In Masechet Shabbat (119b), the Gemara lists as one of the sins for which Gd destroyed the Bet Hamikdashthe fact that “lo hochihu zeh et zeh”– the people did not give one another criticism. The Jews of the time felt content looking after their own religious observance, and felt no responsibility to correct others who acted improperly. We do not believe that other people’s conduct is “none of our business.” All Jews are responsible for one another, as the famous rabbinic adage teaches – “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh.”This is why the confessional prayer – vidui– is written in the plural form, as we confess collectively, as a nation. We bear responsibility not only for our own conduct, but also for the conduct of our fellow Jews. And so the Torah commands us to rebuke each other when necessary, to ensure that we all follow the Torah’s laws as we should. It was the Jews’ failure in this regard, their neglecting to give each other criticism, that the Mikdash was destroyed.
Many readers likely found the previous paragraph surprising – and for very good reason. Already the sages in the Talmud, in a separate context, noted the extreme difficulty in properly fulfilling this mitzvah of rebuke, which is subject to numerous conditions. For one thing, criticism may be given only if there is a reasonable chance that it would be accepted and effective. If a person knows that his words would fall upon deaf ears, then there is no obligation at all to attempt to offer constructive criticism. This already makes this obligation very rarely applicable. After all, most people resent criticism, even when it is spoken gently and sincerely. Our natural tendency is to defend ourselves at all costs, and to avoid admission of guilt. How often can a person feel assured that his criticism will be effective, or even has a good chance of being effective?
What’s more, every word of criticism that one speaks must be truly constructive. If it is expressed with snarky, condescension or insults, it is not valid. Each word must be pristinely sincere and well-intentioned. And, the criticism must not cause the person any humiliation. If one embarrasses somebody in an effort to correct his behavior, then even if this is done sincerely, the mitzvahis not fulfilled, and the one who expressed the criticism has in fact transgressed a grave Torah prohibition.
In light of all these specifications, the Gemara’s comment becomes very puzzling. Can the failure to criticize really have been one of the sins for which Jerusalem was destroyed? Considering how rarely this mitzvah actually applies, how could the lack of criticism have caused the destruction?
It All Starts at Home
The answer to both these questions can be found in two words written by the Maharsha (Rav Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631), one of the classic commentators to the Talmud. In his comments to the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, the Maharsha succinctly writes, “Av ubeno– Father and son.” Kamtza and Bar Kamtza were father and son. Indeed, the word “bar” means “son,” and it thus stands to reason that Bar Kamtza was Kamtza’s son. Kamtza, the father, was supposed to be invited to the party, but the invitation was mistakenly delivered to his son, Bar Kamtza, instead.
Thesetwo words change everything, and give all parents a great deal to think about, especially during the season when we mourn and reflect upon the loss of the Bet Hamikdashand the spiritual causes of our exile.
Why is Kamtza held partially accountable for this tragedy? Quite simply, because of the way his son turned out. If Bar Kamtza could do something so outrageously cruel to avenge a slight to his honor, then part of the blame rests with his parents. And thus, indeed, “Jerusalem was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.” It was destroyed because of the sins of Bar Kamtza, which were the result of the sin of Kamtza – namely, his failure to properly educate his child.
With this in mind, we can return to the other Talmudic passage cited above, attributing Jerusalem’s destruction to the fact that people did not reprimand one another. True, criticism and rebuke are, very often, not an option. However, there is one context where it most certainly is possible, and is in fact vital – parenting. The Gemara means to say that parents did not fulfill their obligation as parents, their responsibility to criticize their children when necessary in order to steer them in the right direction. The children thus grew into “Bar Kamtzas,” immoral and corrupt people, and this led to the destruction of Jerusalem.
This novel explanation of the Gemara is not one which I came up with on my own. I was privileged to hear this insight many years ago from our great rabbi, Hacham Baruch Ben-Haim, zt”l, in one of the last lectures he delivered before his passing. He was lamenting the spiritual ills that plagued our community, and then a man in the audience raised his hand and asked, “So what do you want us to do? You’ve mentioned all the problems – what are we supposed to do about them?”
The rabbi answered, “Start in your own home, in your own family. Teach your children the right way a Jew is supposed to live.” And he shared the insight presented above.
It all starts at home. We have very limited control over what our neighbors do, whatother community members do, or what Jews in other communities do. But the place where we can and must exert control and authority is within our home, in raising our children. This is where we can make an impact. This is where gentle, constructive criticism and enforcing appropriate limits is warranted, and where the mitzvah of rebuke is fully applicable and vitally important.
Our Challenge and Duty
Some people, I am afraid, have it backwards. They are quick to shout –
literally or figuratively – in protest of things in the community that are not to their liking, but fail to exert authority over their children, and instead allow them to act as they wish, without setting reasonable limits.
This is not to say that disciplining children is a simple matter. There are several different reasons why many parents avoid discipline, the most common of which, perhaps, is convenience. Let’s face it – it’s far easier not to bother, to allow our childrento do what they want without having to go through the struggle of discipline, without having to hear the children’s angry complaints and protests. But nobody said parenting is easy or is supposed to be easy. We hope and pray for Gd’s assistance, but experienced parents know very well that there is no such thing as an “easy child.” Each and every child poses his or her own sets of challenges. And setting limits is one of the major challenges of parenting, but one which we can ill afford to avoid through permissiveness.
I often hear parents tell me, “But my son [or daughter] is my best friend. I don’t want to ruin our relationship by putting my foot down.” This, too, is a terrible mistake. We do not have children for them to be our best friends. Of course, weneed to show them love, friendship and support, and build deep, meaningful relationships with them. But we also need to show them how to live, and this oftentimes requires imposing and enforcing rules which they do not like. It is a difficult challenge, but it is our sacred duty. We cannot abdicate this responsibility for the sake of convenience or because of our “friendship” with our children.
I was once speaking to a man in the community who told me how proud he was of his daughter. She was at a pool party where boys and girls swam together, and when she saw that things were “getting out of hand,” she left. I told him that I thought his daughter should be commended, but her parents should not be. Why did they let her go to such a party? If he disapproves of such inappropriate conduct, then why was she permitted to attend in the first place?
It is difficult and aggravating to say to one’s son or daughter, “Why are you leaving the house dressed like that?” or “Tell me where you are going and when you will beback.” It is a challenge to wake up a teenage son during vacation so he could attend the minyanon time. It is far easier to leave them alone and hope that somehow, someday, they’ll get it right. But this is irresponsible. Gd gave us children for us to raise and educate to become His faithful servants. Needless to say, there are never any guarantees, and even the children of the greatest parents will not necessarily turn out the way we want. But we have to try, even when it is difficult.
Rabbis throughout the ages have offered different explanations for why this month, the month of the Temple’s destruction, is called “Av,” which means “father.” In light of what we have seen, the answer might be, very simply, that failed parenting is the primary cause of thetragedy we mourn in this month. When parents ceased being parents, and did not go through the trouble of educating their children, the moral and religious fabric of the nation naturally declined, resulting in the fall of Jerusalem.
Leads to Mourning
Towards the end of Megilat Echah(5:14), we wail, “Zekenim bashaar shavatu bahurim mineginatam,”which literally means, “The elders were no longer by the gate; nor the young men in their singing.” According to the plain reading of this verse, it laments the fact that nobody remained in Jerusalem – neither the elderly, who would convene by the city’s gate, nor the youngsters, who would enjoy the fun of song and festivity. On a deeper level, however, this verse can be read to mean that the elders stopped trying to bring the youth away from their “singing” – from their partying. The adults permitted the youngsters to stay out late at night reveling with friends, without setting limits.
The next verse reads, “…nehepach le’evel meholenu– our dances have been transformed to mourning.” The word “mehol” (literally, “dance”) can be read as a derivative of the word “mehila” –forgiveness. It was our forgiving, lax attitude towards our children that resulted in our mourning. Parents adopted an approach of “mehila,” of leaving the children alone, hoping that eventually they would turn around. Not surprisingly, this turnaround never occurred, and an entire generation was raised without being accustomed to limits and constraints. And so this “mehila,” the parents’ permissiveness, eventually led to mourning. Because they did not enforce rules and limits, and instead permitted whatever the youth wanted, the society deteriorated to the point where it deserved to be destroyed.
This message is also alluded to in the famous halacha introduced by the Mishna and codified in the Shulhan Aruch: “Mishenichnas Av mema’atin besimhah– When Av begins, we reduce our joy.” When the “av” – the father –
comes along, the result should be a reduction of the child’s “joy,” because the father should not be allowing the child to do whatever he or she wants. Significantly, this halacha does not mean that weeliminate joy, Heaven forbid. We all want our children to be happy and content, at all times. But part of our responsibility as parents is “mema’atin besimhah,” to keep our children’s happiness in check, by setting reasonable limits and saying “no” when necessary. We have an obligation to do what we can to make and keep our children happy, but within appropriate boundaries.
The process of rebuilding the Bet Hamikdash, our national “home,” begins with properly building our private homes. As mentioned, we have a very limited amount of control over what other people do, but within our homes, we have authority which we need to exert. This must be done wisely, prudently, delicately, and in proper measure, but we cannot neglect this responsibility.
It is perhapsnot a coincidence that the season of mourning for the Bet Hamikdashalways occurs during the weeks of summer vacation. This is a period when our time is less structured, and rules are relaxed. And thus specifically during these weeks, we need the reminderof “mema’atin besimhah,” that while we and our children all deserve and should experience a happy and fun summer vacation, the level of fun must be kept in check. Summertime is not an excuse for unrestrained enjoyment, for removing all limits and boundaries.
If we faithfully and determinedly fulfill our obligations as parents, then Gd, our loving and compassionate Father, will grant us His blessings, will bring an end to the trials and tribulations of exile, and will once again reside among us in the rebuilt Mikdash,speedily and in our times, amen.