Why We Lost the Land

Today is Tisha b’Av[1]. It’s a traditional day of mourning, and we read the beginning parsha of Devarim, where Moshe recaps the last forty years of our lives in the wilderness. We are reminded that we were not allowed to enter the land after we cried all night in response to the report of the meraglim[2].Tisha-Bva

The spies reported that it indeed flowed with milk and honey, and they showed some of its fruit[3]. Had the scouts stopped there, they would have successfully enticed the people to enter and take the land of promise, and I believe this was the intent. However, that did not happen. The spies continued and said:

  • the people who dwell in the land are strong
  • the cities are fortified and very large
  • we saw the descendants of Anak there
  • the Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negev
  • the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country
  • the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan
  • we are not able to go up against the people
  • they are stronger than we are
  • the land… …is a land that devours its inhabitants
  • all the people that we saw in it are of great height
  • we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim)
  • we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers
  • and so we seemed to them

When you look at the full scope of the meraglim’s report, one will find it to be a fabrication – a lie – with a bit of truth sprinkled in to give the story the illusion of credibility. It worked… we believed the report. Sometimes I think this is the capstone of our rebellion in the wilderness and represents the most grievous of all our sin. Unlike the sins of wanting meat, the golden calf, and complaining, the long-lasting consequences for this sin was exile and death, and it was not truncated by the intercession of Moshe. A swift prayer from Moshe truncated all other punishments.

Targum Onkelos, when it describes the scene during the spies’ report, uses the word kamtzim when it translates grasshoppers,” which brings me to an unusual story.

A man was celebrating a great festive holiday. He instructed his servant, “Invite all my friends and business associates from the neighboring towns. Be sure to invite my close friend Kamtza.” Unbeknownst to the man, his servant invited Bar Kamtza, his sworn enemy, and not Kamtza.
Bar Kamtza accepts the invitation and attends. When the man sees Kamtza sitting at a table, he says, “What are you doing here? Get out, now!”
Bar Kamtza pleads to not be embarrassed and asks to stay. “I offer to pay for everything I consume if you only let me stay.”
When the man refused, Bar Kamtza says, “I offer to pay for half of the banquet costs.”
After Bar Kamtza offers to pay for all the costs, he grabs hold of Bar Kamtza and throwns him out, in front of all the dinner guests. As he is being thrown, he sees rabbis in attendance, and none of them intervene on his behalf. “The rabbis must be complacent and are in agreement with my harsh treatment. I, therefore, will spread slander the rabbis in Caesar’s palace.”
Bar Kamtza goes before Caesar and says, “The Jews are in rebellion. Send a sacrifice to the Beit Hamikdash[4] in Jerusalem and see if they will refuse to offer it up for you.”
Caesar sends a fine calf with Bar Kamtza. On the journey, Bar Kamtza fillets the upper lip, causing a blemish that renders the sacrifice posul[5] for the temple service, but not unfit from Roman standards[6]. When Bar Kamtza comes to the Temple with the posul offering, the Rabbis debate the situation:
Some suggested they permit the sacrifice anyway to keep the peace with the Roman governors. R.Zechariah b.Avkulas said, “If you allow it, then the people will think it’s permissible to bring blemished animals to the altar.” Some rabbis suggested they kill Bar Kamtza so he cannot report to Caesar that his sacrifice was refused. R.Zechariah said, “Heaven forbid the people think bringing a sacrifice with a blemish of any kind will incur the death penalty.”
R.Yochanan says the modesty (or tolerance) of R.Zechariah destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land, and caused the death of 100,000 Jews[7].

The story of Bar Kamtza speaks of a two-front assault on the Temple, though I am only going to speak to one because it relates closely to today’s Torah portion[8].

  • The man holding the banquet hated Bar Kamtza; did he have a reason?
    He may have had good reason, we don’t know. Any answer is purely conjecture.
  • Did the man want to reconcile with Bar Kamtza?
    No. This is clear because even the offer to reimburse the complete cost of the banquet was not accepted.
  • Did Bar Kamtza want to reconcile with the man?
    Yes. This, also, is clear because he came to the banquet.

The man evicted Bar Kamtza from the banquet in spite of the repeated pleas to remain. It’s clear his hatred is cast so deeply onto his soul it could not be removed.

There’s another dynamic in the story that is often missed. The man is friends with Kamtza, but is mortal enemies with his son Bar Kamtza. When Bar Kamtza is invited to the banquet, perhaps he was thinking Kamtza (his father) must have interceded on his behalf, allowing the two men to set aside their dispute and become friends. How surprised he must have been to find that it was only a ruse. A trick. Bar Kamtza, then, must have thought his father was in on it the hoax. “Surely my father hates me.”

The hatred from the man propels Bar Kamtza to new depths of animosity and vengeance, and he takes it out on the rabbis, the man, and his father; and this injures every one of the Jewish people for generations.

A psychological commentary on Torah asks and attempts to answer a question that our sages have wrestled throughout the ages. Why didn’t Joseph try to contact his father? Once he was put in charge of everything in Potiphar’s household affairs, he easily could have sent a message to his father. Again, as the viceroy of Pharaoh, he could have sent messengers to Eretz Canaan to inquire of his father’s welfare. This commentary speculates Joseph believed his father was in on the sale and that his father hated him. As a youth, he was the cause of much family drama and hatred, and there was a family precedence to rid the family of troublemaker[9].

The story of Kamtza and Bat Kamtza shows that one act of baseless hatred breeds hatred and anguish in its wake.

  • Shiloh was destroyed because of immorality and irreverence for the sacrifices
  • The first Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed[10]
  • During the second temple, even though the people occupied themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and acts of kindness, it was destroyed because of baseless or gratuitous hatred[11].[12]

We say, Next year in Jerusalem every year at the Pesach[13] seder, thinking and hoping our exile and the hatred of the other nations will finally come to a close. However, we have not learned our lesson. We hate and we couch our anger behind straw-man arguments and weak justification (if you ask anyone why they hate another person or group, they will provide justification every time). We hate each other over skin color, preference, religious leaning, and political lines. We hope certain politicians fall to cancer or assassination, we actively seek to throw other employees under the bus to cause them to lose their jobs, and we use vile words and vicious memes against members of other religions. In all this, we believe we have cause and rationalization, but we do not. We are engulfed in unjustified hatred.

Do we want to see Messiah? We say we do, but our actions toward one another indicates we don’t. If our actions and our words were honest, we would treat our fellow with more respect. Right now, we are our worst enemy. We need to have respect for one another and we must find kind words to say to each other. We must look after one another and love each other in spite of our theological differences or political leanings; until that happens, we will not see Messiah. Perhaps that’s why Hashem paints such a grim picture of the Aharit HaYamim[14]. Do we need to have the whole world come against us in order to get us to come home to one G-d, one altar, one Sanctuary, one Temple, one People (Am Echad)? Perhaps that’s why Messiah is said to come when things are at their most grim. Do we need to look annihilation in the face before we finally get it; before we will be Am Echad? Prophecy is not written in stone. Jonah’s words against Nineveh prove prophecy is not a sure bet. Therefore, we CAN find a way to end our baseless hatred before it’s too late, before the militaries of the whole world cause us to abandon our hatred the hard way[15]. The actions of one destroyed the Sanctuary. In like manner, the actions of one can bring Messiah.

Be that one.


[1] The ninth day of the month of Av

[2] Heb. Spies

[3] Numbers 13:27

[4] The Temple

[5] Heb. Unfit

[6] It’s interesting the story uses the lip as the source of the blemish, considering the sin of gossip is being used against the Rabbis. Other sources say the upper eyelid was blemished, reminding us the rabbis saw Bar Kamtza’s expulsion and did not intervene.

[7] b.Gittin 55b-56a; ref. t.Shabbat 16:7

[8] The other assault is the unwillingness

[9] Ishmael was sent away for causing grief with Isaac, and Jacob was sent off to live with Lavan because of the drama over the sale of the birthright

[10] The destructions of the temples are compared to the quarrels over the wells during the days of Isaac. The reasons for the quarrelling match the reasons for the destruction of the corresponding Temple. Note, however, the third well was uncontested, indicating the third Temple will stand forever. Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.” So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines filled after the death of Abraham. And he gave them the names that his father gave them. But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the name of the well Esek, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that also, so he called its name Sitnah. And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth, saying, “For now Hashem has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” (Genesis 26:12-22)

[11] This teaches that baseless hatred is equivalent to idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed – the three “cardinal” sins of Judaism

[12] b.Yoma 9a

[13] Passover

[14] Heb. The Last Days

[15] ref. Matthew 23:37-39


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