23 July 2021

Rabbi Winston: VaEschanan – Consolation?

TORAH GLADDENS THE heart, so we are limited when it comes to learning Torah on Tisha B’Av, especially when it comes to gemora. One of the sections that is permissible is in Maseches Gittin, beginning on 55b, because it recounts the events that led up to the destruction of the Second Temple. 

The section begins like this:


Rebi Yochanan said: What is illustrative of the verse, “Happy is the man that fears always, but he that hardens his heart shall fall into mischief” (Tehillim 28:14)? The destruction of Jerusalem came through Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, the destruction of Tur Malkah came through a cock and a hen, and the destruction of Beitar came through the shaft of a leather.


Rashi explains the fear mentioned in the verse is a concern about the potential future consequences of a current action. As the gemora says elsewhere, a wise person is one who sees what is being born (Tamid 32a). They project the present into the future to decide a prudent course of action now. 


This is the introduction to a section that will end with the following: 


Come and see how serious it is to embarrass a person, for G–D helped Bar Kamtza and destroyed His House and burnt His Temple. (Gittin 57a)


Remarkable, truly remarkable. Punish an entire nation because one insensitive party-maker embarrassed his enemy? 


A certain man had a friend Kamtza and an enemy Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza.” 

The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, “See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out.” 

Said the other: “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” 

He said, “I won’t.” 

“Then let me give you half the cost of the party.”

“No,” said the other. 

“Then let me pay for the whole party.” 

He still said, “No, and he took him by the hand and put him out.” 

Said the other, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against then, to the Government.”


Help an evil person destroy the Temple because he was embarrassed by someone? Brutally destroy entire cities because of a hen, or some kind of shaft? The accounting doesn’t make any sense. 



I ONCE HEARD a shiur that explained the role of Rebi Zechariah’s humility. As per Bar Kamtza’s advice to the Romans, they sent him with a sacrifice to see if the Jews would offer it up on the Temple altar. Bar Kamtza put a blemish in it so they wouldn’t to make it look as if they were rebelling against the Roman government.


The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said Rebi Zechariah ben Abkulas to them: “People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.” 

They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Rebi Zechariah ben Abkulas said to them, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?” 


Rebi Yochanan remarked: “Through the humility of Rebi Zechariah ben Abkulas, our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land. (Gittin 56a)


Being a Gadol b’Torah, he was part of the Sanhedrin. The rule of the Sanhedrin was that when a judgment was put to a vote, they began hearing opinions from the lesser talmidei chachamim, so that they would speak freely and not be intimidated by the opinions of those greater. 


Rebi Zechariah, in his humility, did not think much of himself, so he spoke his opinion early as if one of the lesser members of the Sanhedrin. The problem was that others on the Sanhedrin thought very highly of him, and once he spoke, they were uncomfortable contradicting his opinion. So they didn’t, and his opinion carried the day. 


But as Shmuel HaNavi told Shaul HaMelech, “You may be small in your own eyes, but you are the king of the Jewish people!” As such, he had to act his position for the sake of the people, no matter how uncomfortable he was doing it. Humility at the wrong time can be more deadly than a lack of it at the necessary time.


But how could Rebi Zechariah not have seen the fault in his own logic, and the potential consequences of his decision? The answer to that question is on the back side of the page:


As for your question,” [Rebi Yochanan ben Zakkai answered Vespasian], “why if you are a king, I did not come to you until now, the answer is that the Biryonim (Jewish rebels) among us did not let me.” 

He said to him: “If there is a serpent wound around a jar of honey, would they not break the jar to get rid of the serpent?(i.e., get rid of the Biryonim to save Jerusalem and its people)? 

He could not answer him. Rav Yosef, or as some say Rebi Akiva, applied to him the verse, “[G–D] turns wise men backward and makes their knowledge foolish” (Yeshayahu 44:25).  


In other words, it wasn’t Rebi Yochanan’s own shortcoming that caused him to ask for the wrong things from Vespasian. It was G–D Who put it into his mind what to ask for, which sounds like a reason for concern. We rely upon our Torah leaders to get help from G–D to always make the right decisions on our behalf, even miraculously if necessary. Does this not say that they aren’t as reliable as we thought they were, because G–D can deliberately send them in the opposite direction than the one that benefits us? 

If so, yikes? 



MOSHE MENTIONS IN this week’s parsha how G–D rejected his plea to enter Eretz Yisroel, saying, “But G–D was angry with me because of you” (Devarim 3:26). There are different Hebrew words for angry, but Moshe chose “vayisaber,” which Rashi explains to mean “became filled with wrath.”


The Arizal saw in this word usage a hint to a very important point about Jewish leadership, especially Torah leadership, though it involves some Kabbalah: 


As known, just as Zehr Anpin has the levels of Ibur—impregnation, Yenikah—nursing, and brains of Gadlus, so too do all souls have these [three levels]. The Holy One, Blessed is He, gives wisdom to the leader of the generation based upon the merits of the generation. 


Therefore, when the Jewish people sinned they caused their leader, Moshe, to return to the level of Ibur, and to lose the rest of the illuminations he had in the beginning, [the levels of] Yenikah and Gadlus. He was left with only the illuminations of Ibur. Then he forgot all those laws that he knew, as it is known, because the level of Ibur of Zehr Anpin is [when it ascends to inside] Imma Ila’a, called “Yovel”…The Hovayah in this verse is b’sod Imma, and this is “vayisaber—and G–D became angry with me,” and  “because of you,” since it is the sins of the generation that cause this to happen to the leader. (Sha’ar HaPesukim, VaEschanan)


Without a background in Kabbalah, this will make little sense other than the last line. Simply, a Torah leader is not only about their depth of knowledge, but also about the depth of the divine insight they receive to help them understand a situation they must make a decision about. A certain amount of this will be the result of their own merit. The “extra” they might receive to better lead the nation will be in the merit of those people they have to lead.


Hence, Moshe Rabbeinu’s complaint. He was telling the people that, due to their own spiritual shortcomings, he was spiritually demoted, as Rashi states here by the episode of the golden calf: 


G–D said to Moshe: “Go, descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly.” (Shemos 32:7) 


Descend from your high position. I gave you this high position only for their sake. At that time, Moshe was banished by a decree of the heavenly tribunal. (Rashi)


In Kabbalah, the level of prophecy to which Moshe had reached is called Gadlus. The level to which he descended because of their sins is called Ibur, the root of the word vayisaber in the parsha used for “became angry with.” In one word, Moshe Rabbeinu alluded to the net effect on him of their sinning and his ability to lead the nation. 


This is how the Maharsha explains the verse from the gemora as well. He says that Rebi Yochanan did not think to ask to save the Temple or Jerusalem, because the people inside were not worthy of being saved. Had they been, then G–D would have put it into his head to ask for their salvation, and Vespasian would have been compelled to grant it.


Likewise, had the people been worthy of it, then Rebi Zechariah would have realized a better answer to save the nation. The series of events that led to the Churban were a reflection of the nation, not of Rebi Zechariah. They reflected the decree against the people, as the next piece of gemora makes clear.



ONCE THE ROMANS bought Bar Kamtza’s argument, they sent legions against Jerusalem to begin what would become a disastrous siege and eventual destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem around it. 


He [the Emperor] sent against them Neron the Caesar. As he was coming he shot an arrow towards the east, and it fell in Jerusalem. He then shot one towards the west, and it again fell in Jerusalem. He shot towards all four points of the compass, and each time it fell in Jerusalem. He said to a certain boy, “Repeat to me [the last] verse you have learned.”

He told him, “And I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of My people Israel” (Yechezkel 25:14). 

He said: “The Holy One, Blessed is He, wants to lay waste His House and to lay the blame on me!”  (Gittin 56a)


As they say, the die was cast. Neron may have received his marching orders from Rome, but he was being sent by G–D. The destruction had been decreed on high, and the Roman general was meant to carry it out, and that disturbed him to the point of turning to a Jewish child for confirmation.


How did Neron know? Because of the fourth arrow he shot in the direction of Jerusalem that landed in Jerusalem. Had it been the first shot, he wouldn’t have taken note of it. But after sending arrows in other directions and they fell in Jerusalem, the fourth should have gone somewhere else if the entire incident was just some kind of weird omen. The fact that it too landed in Jerusalem meant that Jerusalem was in fact the target, and that the people lacked the merit to survive.


It shook Neron up so much in fact that rather than be emboldened by the divine encouragement, he declined the advantage, deserted, and converted. He had read the divine sign and had not liked what he read. Curiously enough, the gemora felt compelled to tell us that, as a reward, he became the ancestor of the great Rebi Meir. For allowing his eyes to be illuminated by divine signs…for projecting into the future what he saw in the present…he was blessed with a descendant who illuminated—meir—the eyes of his generation.


Which brings the gemora to the next part of the story about Rebi Tzaddok. He was the one who fasted for forty years to try and avert the destruction of the Temple. How did he know it was coming? Because he paid attention to the divine signs, and responded to them. 


Therefore it was no coincidence that the very wealthy and pampered Marta bas Baysos accidentally ate the fig of Rebi Tzaddok, and died because of it. After forty years of fasting failed to avert the decree, Rebi Tzaddok was nursed back to health by sucking the juice out of a fig which he later disposed of. Desperate for food during the siege despite being rich, she picked the fig up, ate it, and was disgusted to the point of dementia from it.


How could she have such resources and yet be caught so unprepared for the famine that came up? The Torah answers in next week’s parsha, where it warns that success will be breed overconfidence which will lead to the forgetting of G–D. The gemora also says that the generation of the flood and Sdom only forgot about G–D because of all the success He gave them. 


Success blinds people to the messages of G–D.

This leads to a reduction of merit.

That leads to a reduction of leadership.

And that leads to destruction.


The consolation? We haven’t reached that point yet in our history. If we break the chain of negative events, we can reverse the trend and save ourselves before things become as bad as they did in the gemora.


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