For me, August holds the sadness of Tisha B’Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of both Temples (the first,
by the Babylonians, the second by the Romans), as well as a host of tragedies that befell our people long ago. Spending
summers in Jewish summer camps, there were lessons to be learned, lessons to be taught. I cherish childhood memories of
hearing Eicha chanted in camp, soaking in lessons of history. And yet — it all seems too remote…the expulsion of Jews from
Spain over five centuries ago, the Romans burning down the Second Temple nearly two millennia ago, the Babylonians
destroying the First Temple nearly 2,600 years ago — these events feel like the impossibly dim light from distant stars. What lessons can we take home today? I have joked with colleagues and friends about the perennial tough sell of chanting dirges on a Saturday night in August. Within our modern lives, beset with an overload of headlines that loudly shout out a long list of awfulness from political dysfunction, a raging distant war, democracies around the world being tested by corruption and insurrection, the growing awareness that climate crises are no longer abstract topics — who possesses the emotional bandwidth for communal mourning rituals tying us to the distant past?! It’s a fair question. We’re severely overloaded. What are we trying to teach our children? To borrow a rabbinic Passover-flavored question, what do these rituals mean to us?
So immediately below is a timely piece of Torah from Rabbi David Golinken, one of my favorites from Jerusalem (going back to 1987-1989!). His Torah continually reminds me that ancient insights can still resonate for modern Jews once our eyes and ears are opened…
As we approach Tisha B’av, my question today is: what is the connection between Tisha B’av and the war going on now in
Ukraine? On Tisha B’av, there is a custom to study a famous section of the Talmud (tractate Gittin folios 55b-58a) which
contains legends and stories about the Destruction of the Second Temple.
The first story in that section tells the story of a certain wealthy Jew who lived in Jerusalem, who had a friend named
Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He sent his servant to invite Kamtza to a feast, but by mistake, the servant brings Bar Kamtza. When Bar Kamtza shows up and sits down at the
meal, the host goes over to him and says “What are you doing here! Get out!” Bar Kamtza replies: “Since I am here, let me
stay, and I will pay for whatever I eat and drink.” The host says, “No, get out!” Bar Kamtza says:” I’m willing to pay for half of this entire feast.” The host says, “No, get out!” “I’m willing to pay for the entire feast.” The host says “No! get out!”. Bar Kamtza says: “Since the rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the Government.”
In other words, because the host publicly insulted Bar Kamtza while the rabbis sat there and did nothing, Bar Kamtza went to the Roman Emperor and slandered the Jews and the end result was the siege on Jerusalem and the Destruction of the
The lesson of this tragic story can be summarized in a quote attributed to Edmund Burke in the 18th century: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. This idea was reiterated after the Holocaust by the anti-Nazi Lutheran Minister Martin Niemoller. It’s not exactly
what he said, but it’s the gist of a speech he delivered in January 1946:
“First, they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me. ”
The final source I shall quote is from a speech that may sound familiar but, in a moment, we will discover that it’s not. It was delivered by the leader of an embattled country to an international body of nations. This is what that leader said:
“I assert that the problem submitted to the Assembly today is a much wider one. It is not merely a question of the settlement
of… aggression… It is collective security. It is the very
existence of [this body] … In a word, it is international morality that is at stake. Have the signatures appended to
a Treaty value only insofar as the signatory powers have a personal, direct and immediate interest involved? …
Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord, there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong Government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to [this body] to give its judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment.”
And finally, he said, “This is not a case of the impossibility of stopping an aggressor, but of the refusal to stop an aggressor.”
You might think that this is a quote from President Zelensky of Ukraine talking to the United Nations about the Russian
invasion of his country – but you would be wrong. It’s a quote from Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia talking to the League
of Nations in Geneva in June of 1936 after Italy invaded his country without provocation, and with the help of poison
gas, managed to capture his country. He came to the League of Nations, and he asked for their help — and they did absolutely nothing.
Thus, we see that there is a direct line from the story of Bar Kamtza in the tractate of Gittin about the Destruction of
the Second Temple, which teaches us what happens when good men do nothing. This is what happened in Ethiopia in 1936. This is what happened during the Shoah from 1933 to 1945. And this is what could happen in Ukraine if the world does not continue to aid Ukraine.
When we see individuals being mistreated, we must speak up.
When we see entire ethnic groups and minorities being discriminated against, we must take action.
When we see peaceful countries being attacked for no reason, we must protest and force our governments to help the
victims. This is one of the important lessons of Tisha B’av.
Our minds are deeply distracted. School schedules, strategizing our travel routines as we dodge waves of COVID — it’s tough to engage our community with a section of Talmud when we’re up to our necks in the hot mess of 2022. But it turns out, if we clear a bit a space within our mental clutter, we’ll hear this call to reject passivity in the face of tyranny. When we stand aloof, hand over our eyes and ears,
pretending — not my problem, not my fight! – the bullies understand the message. They realize how much they can get away with. They understand that people just don’t care that much. Our people bear the trauma and the scars that come with this knowledge. If we look away from the horror, if we remain silent and indifferent, how can we face our own image in the mirror? What will tell our children when they ask us why we sat this tragedy out, lost in our own noise?