This week’s Torah portion is D’varim, as we start the book of Deuteronomy. This week also falls in what is called the “Nine Days,” a period of deep reflection and introspection preceding the commemoration of Tisha b’Av on the 9th day of the month of Av (August 1 this year).
Tisha b’Av memorializes the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., as well as the First Temple centuries before. It is a day of mourning, and on it we are forbidden from learning Torah (since the study of Torah gives us great joy). However, we are permitted to study texts that are relevant to the subject of mourning, such as Lamentations or Job. We are also permitted to read the Talmudic legend of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.
According to the sages of the Talmud, a Jew in first-century Jerusalem wanted to throw a party for all his friends. He drew up a guest list and sent his servant to invite all the people on it, including a man named Kamtza. However, the hapless servant accidently misread the name and instead invited a man named Bar Kamtza, who happened to be a man his master greatly disliked.
Bar Kamtza was delighted to receive the invitation, believing that his nemesis was finally looking to bury the hatchet. But when he arrived at the party, the host took one look at him and ordered him to leave at once.
Bar Kamtza was embarrassed to have to leave the party in such a way and offered to pay for the cost of his meal if he could stay. The host refused. Bar Kamtza, then offered to pay half the cost of the party if he could take part in it. Once again, the host refused. Finally, Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the entire cost of the feast, if only he would not be shamefully ejected from the party.
The host coldly rebuffed both Bar Kamtza’s generous proposal and his bid for friendship and sent him away. As Bar Kamtza left, disgraced, he saw the rabbis who had been invited standing silently, their inaction condoning their host’s unjust behaviour.
Bar Kamtza left the party and in his rage and humiliation he went straight to the Roman authorities and delivered a slanderous report about disloyalty and rebellion among the Jews, laying the seeds for the destruction of the Temple.
And so, one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the Jewish people came about, not because of a long chain of inexorable geopolitical events, but because two men were unwilling to be kind to each other.
The Scriptures instruct us again and again how powerful our words are, how the things we say can build up and impart life or tear down and bring death. The Book of Proverbs says: The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Prov. 18:22)
The apostle Yaakov warns, “The tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire” (James 3:5).
And yet the sad tale of Bar Kamtza teaches us that it’s not only the things that we say that can cause harm, but the things that we leave unsaid as well. Had the rabbis who witnessed the baseless hatred of their host spoken against it, a great misfortune might have been averted.
Instead, they said nothing, and Bar Kamtza was left to interpret the meaning of their silence on his own. Perhaps the rabbis were embarrassed and didn’t wish to get involved. Maybe they were worried they would be thrown out themselves if they took Bar Kamtza’s side. Whatever the reason for their silence, Bar Kamtza read their intent as tolerating a great wrong.
The intention behind our words is just as important as the words themselves and holds the same power of life and death within it. In this week’s parasha, Moses narrates the story of Israel’s long journey through the wilderness and recounts the sin of the spies in Canaan. In telling the story, Moses says a strange thing: “And the Lord heard the voice of your words, and was angry . . .” (Deut. 1:34, literal translation).
The Lord heard more than simply the words of the spies. Nothing the spies said was untrue. He heard the voice of the words. The intention behind the report. The words may have been true, but the intention was cowardly, mistrustful and treasonous.
We must be responsible not only with our words but also with the voice of our words.
The rabbis in Bar Kamtza’s day may have said nothing, but the voice of their silence was so loud that it tore down the walls of the Temple. The spies in Moses’ day may have spoken no lies, but the voice of their words was so corrupting that it doomed a generation to die in the wilderness.
In the days of Moses, words had the power of life and death, but in these last days the words we have been given by Messiah Yeshua are the words of eternal life! How much greater is our responsibility to use those words to impart life, to encourage each other, and to build Yeshua’s kingdom?
May we always be good stewards of the words of life we have in Messiah Yeshua. And may the voice of our words be as sweet as the words themselves.