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The Avodah Blog

Civility, Assuming Good Will, and the Threats of Powerful Saboteurs: D’var Torah for Parashat Devarim & Tisha B’Av

This week we begin the book of Devarim, Moshe’s great, booklong speech to prepare the people for liberated, responsible, landed civic life after his imminent death. At the beginning, he recalls desert history (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:6-13):

“YHWH our God spoke to us at Horev, saying, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain.  Turn and make your journey: go to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the ‘Aravah, the hill country, the Lowlands, the Negev, the seacoast, the land of the Cana‘anites, and the Lebanon, as far as the Great River, the river Euphrates. See, I place the land before you.  Go and take possession of the land that YHWH swore to your ancestors, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya‘akov, to give to them and to their seed after them.’ I spoke to you at that time, saying, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. YHWH your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky. (May YHWH, the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as promised to you.) How can I bear by myself the trouble of you, and the burden, and the strife!? Pick from each of your tribes people who are wise, discerning, and knowledgeable, and I will appoint them as your heads…’”

There is considerable debate among the commentators regarding when in the desert narrative this appointment of judges and leaders took place, as it recalls, in different ways, both Sh’mot/Exodus 18:13-27 and Bemidbar/Numbers 11, especially verses 11-17 and 24-30. Be that as it may, how do we understand Moshe’s tone in our parashah? On the face of it, he is retelling the history innocuously: when God commanded them to leave the mountain and prepare to conquer the Land of Israel, Moshe pointed out that he did not have the strength to lead single-handedly through an undertaking of this magnitude, especially since, thank God, the people has become so numerous. Therefore, he inaugurated a more elaborate governmental system that was instructed to judge with full integrity.  It is in this innocuous, generous, descriptive light that the Ramban (1194-1270, Girona, Spain) understands that “trouble—טָרְחֲכֶם” refers to the overwhelming task of teaching Torah to so many people, “burden—מַשַּׂאֲכֶם” refers to praying on their behalf, by way of which he took upon himself the awesome burden of their needs and misdoings, and “strife—רִיבְכֶם” refers, simply, to their legal disputes (comment to Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:12). All three of these elements are natural aspects of civic life that imply nothing improper about the Israelites: decent citizens need educators, spiritual advocates, and judges, but naturally, when the population grows, one person can’t handle it all for everyone.

However, the language suggests a negative tone, implying that maybe Moshe rejected the people because he was fed up with them. All three of these words can mean what the Ramban says, but they more naturally cast aspersions on their object. More significantly, “How can I bear…” sounds like a leader at the end of his rope, lashing out at his intolerable subordinates.  This word, “How?!/אֵיכָה”, is known to us from the beginning of the megillah we read on Tisha B’Av (Eikha/Lamentations 1:1):  “אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד הָעִיר רַבָּתִי עָם הָיְתָה כְּאַלְמָנָה”— “How can it be that it sits all alone?! This city that was full of people has become like a widow!” This word reverberates through Megillat Eikha, also appearing in 2:1, 4:1, and 4:2.  Similarly, in the haftara assigned to this week’s parasha, the prophet Isaiah exclaims, “אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט צֶדֶק יָלִין בָּהּ וְעַתָּה מְרַצְּחִים”—“How can it be that the faithful city has become a harlot; it was full of law, and righteousness lodged there, but now they are murderers!” (Isaiah 1:21).  It is a word that suggests disgusted shock at some proposition or situation.  For further examples, see Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:30, as well as Judges 20:3, which describes the brutal rape and murder of the Concubine of Giv‘a, which scandalized the entire people: “How could such an evil thing have happened?!” The Rabbis arranged the calendar such that we always read Parashat Devarim the shabbat before Tisha B’Av, when we mourn our personal and collective displacement and God’s terrible abandonment of the Jewish people. This arrangement suggests that the Sages wanted us to hear the word “אֵיכָה” in our parasha in Eikha’s tone of revulsion. If so, then we read those three words—trouble, burden, and strife—as a violent indictment of our behavior as a people. What did Israel do that was so bad? How did we manifest trouble, burden, and strife before Moshe?

Rashi (1040-1105, Troyes, France) cites a midrash in the Sifrei (c. 200 CE, Land of Israel) that offers a Rabbinic understanding of the cause of Moshe’s rejection of the people. (I thank Rabbi Saul Berman, who brought this midrash to my attention years ago.) The midrash explains as follows:  Moshe lashes out at “טָרְחֲכֶם—The trouble of you” because they were “torhanim—troublemakers”. A person on the losing end of a legal dispute would endlessly prolong the legal procedure, digging up more witnesses and finding any opening by which the conflict would be litigiously maintained. “מַשַּׂאֲכֶם—your burden” is because they clung to Moshe like sheets. If he left his house unusually early in the morning, they would spread rumors that he had been humiliated at home, ie, he had family problems. If he left home a little late, they would scare people by spreading gossip that he must have stayed late scheming against them.  They were privacy-invading rabble-rousers. They tried to destabilize legitimate authority through scaremongering, wild, unfounded gossip, and the malicious attempt to discredit honorable human beings. “רִיבְכֶם—your strife”, which the Ramban noted is a normal word for legal disputes, has a sinister connotation according to the Sifrei. They were nitpickers, always trying to cheat the system, get an unfair bargain, and perhaps murmuring legal jargon along the way (Midrash Sifrei Devarim #12). This midrash points toward one of Avodah’s central community norms, “Assume good will”. It is a premonition to the assault and exile of the Jewish people and destruction of our home that the Jewish people assumed hostility, tried to take advantage of each other, and escalated conflict.

The components of this midrash recall the most common reading of the story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza, the most famous of the many Rabbinic explanations of why Jerusalem was destroyed (Gittin 55b-56a). What is the point of that story according to the most common retelling? That entrenched jealousies and pettiness tore Jewish society to shreds, while the unwillingness of those in power to intervene condemned this hemorrhage to be irreparable. The story is famous but bears repeating in full:

“There was a certain man whose friend was Kamtza and whose enemy was bar Kamtza. He once made a feast and said to his servant: Go bring me Kamtza. He went and brought him bar Kamtza. [The host] came and found [bar Kamtza] sitting there. He said to him: That guy is my enemy!. What do you want here? Get up and leave. [Bar Kamtza] said to him: Since I have already come, let me stay and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. [The host] said to him: No. [Bar Kamtza] said to him: I will pay for half of the feast. [The host] said to him: No. [Bar Kamtza]said to him: I will pay for the entire feast. [The host] said to him: No, took him by his hand, stood him up, and escorted him out.

[Bar Kamtza] said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest, learn from it that they were content. I will go and inform against them to the king. He went and said to the emperor: The Jews have rebelled against you. [The emperor] said to him: Says who? [Bar Kamtza] said to him: send them an offering [to be brought in honor of the government], and see whether they sacrifice it.

[The emperor] went and sent with him a three-year-old calf. While [bar Kamtza] was coming [with the calf to the Temple], he made a blemish on it….The Sages thought to sacrifice it anyway, for the sake of peace with the government. Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas said to them: But then, people will say that blemished animals may be sacrificed on the altar. The Sages instead thought to kill [bar Kamtza] so that he would not go and snitch. Rabbi Zekharya said to them: [If you kill him] people will say that one who makes a blemish on sacrificial animals is to be killed. [So the Rabbis did nothing, bar Kamtza slandered, and the Romans had a fraudulent basis for attack.]”

The Talmud introduces this story by quoting Rabbi Yohanan teaching that “Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza” and it’s tempting to interpret this to focus on the beginning of the story and the cruelty of the host who wouldn’t let the mistake go and tolerate the presence of his enemy. This reading passively assumes that their hostility was petty. However, in the continuation of the story, we find that bar Kamtza is a violent, vindictive rat who favors an oppressive occupying regime over his own people and tries to frame the Jewish people and condemn them to destruction. Let’s say the host and his guests were Black Panthers and bar Kamtza was a cop or friend of cops. Would it be wrong for the host to kick him out and refuse to be bribed to let him stay? If a party of any of our movement organizations was crashed by a supporter of the Capitol insurrection, would we be required to assume good will and preserve that person’s honor and enable them to hear our intimate movement conversation? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that that reading is supported by the text itself, which concludes with another statement of the same Rabbi Yohanan: “The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.” The real problem was that when movement leaders were trying to be pragmatic to de-escalate a crisis and preserve public safety, recognizing that standard rules might not be the most instructive in this crisis, one leader became let his cowardice immobilize himself, and “yeah, but” the movement out of bold action. Offer the invalid sacrifice. Maybe even eliminate the fascist informer in our midst. We’ll deal with fallout from that later; this is a time of crisis. (I thank Dr. Ethan Schwartz and Rina Sadun for their comments in a Facebook thread this week for stimulating my thinking on this story.)

Rabbi Jill Jacobs noted on Facebook a few years ago that since this Talmudic story is written hundreds of years after the events, and the Rabbinic movement didn’t even exactly exist as such at the time of the destruction of the Temple, we should read this story as later Rabbinic reflection on themselves: “We’re so accustomed to saying ‘if I had been alive at such and such a time, I would have been a Freedom Rider, resisted the Nazis, fought slavery, invited Bar Kamtza to dinner. It’s kind of an amazing act of self-reflection and self-admonition to say, ‘Actually, if I had been there, I wouldn’t have done anything.’ Now, perhaps the rabbis are trying to explain why they didn’t manage to save the Temple. And no question, there are hero rabbis as the story progresses. But in this moment, the rabbis don’t try to set themselves up as heroes, but rather acknowledge both the importance of bystanders, and the fact that most of us do not and wouldn’t have been that bystander who takes the risk of objecting.” That is what we mourn and grieve on Tisha B’Av.

Context is everything. The midrash on Moshe’s exasperated comment in our parasha is not teaching us to trust our political leaders no matter what, to put aside differences no matter how important they are, God forbid. The midrash is really talking about people like bar Kamtza, rich people with access to power who dig in on their pride to the point of exploiting, exhausting, or destroying the body politic. Who are the litigants who can afford to continually drum up frivolous lawsuits? Who has access to the means of spreading dangerous and frivolous rumors, of confusing fake news with genuine investigative reporting about our leaders? Who is able to cheat the system, hijacking legal jargon to whitewash it? Rich people with access to power. When the rest of us fecklessly enable their destructive grifting, sabotage, and ego trips, we wear down responsible leaders like Moshe. We also enable our own destruction and exile. Let us not be like feckless Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas, who can’t distinguish between “normal” and “crisis” nor, God forbid, like the narcissistic saboteur bar Kamtza. Let’s not create the conditions in which Moshe gets so exasperated as to reasonably lash out at us in disgust.

Shabbat shalom and have a meaningful fast and journey through grief on Tisha B’Av.

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