Power of the Person

Power of the Person – Shabbat Av/Parashat Devarim
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

You are powerful beyond compare.

It’s a message that’s unexpected, counter-cultural, radical even. We live in times where many of us feel adrift, swept along on currents and riptides that are very much beyond our control. Our world seems more unstable and volatile than we’ve seen in generations and an instinctive response is to be paralysed by our own sense of powerlessness.
What can we do, after all, about the many problems that beset us? About war and hunger, poverty and destitution, hatred and bigotry?

The answer is: everything.

The Talmud, in Tractate Gittin 55b, tells us the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. A rich man decides to throw a party and asks his servant to invite his friend, Kamtza. The servant, however, makes a mistake by mixing up names and invites Bar Kamtza instead, who is a sworn enemy of the rich man. When Bar Kamtza shows up to the party, the patron shoos him and tells him to go home. Mortified and embarrassed, Bar Kamtza tries to save face and implores his reluctant host to let him stay. The rich man remains unyielding in his request, despite Bar Kamtza’s increasingly generous offers to contribute and eventually pay for the entire party.

Allegedly, there was a group of rabbis sitting in the corner, feasting on wine and canapes as they witnessed the unfolding of this dynamic. They did nothing.
Intensely humiliated and profoundly angry, Bar Kamtza left the party and vowed to take revenge on the Rabbis who colluded through their silence with the injustice perpetrated against him. Bar Kamtza sought out the Caesar, the Roman Supreme Ruler, and claimed that the Jews (who at the time live under Roman Occupation in the Land of Israel) were conspiring a rebellion. The Caesar sends a sacrificial animal to the Temple in Jerusalem to test the loyalty of his subjects and Bar Kamtza intentionally wounds the animal to disqualify it from being brought as an offering. After much deliberation, the Sanhedrin – the Supreme Rabbinic Court of seventy – decide to reject the sacrifice, not wanting to create a precedent for bringing blemished animals. This incident sparks an untold fury in the Roman Emperor and he lays waste to Jerusalem and destroys the Temple.
The rest, as they say, is the beginning of our exilic history as a People.

This story is a dark retelling of the so-called ‘butterfly effect’; that small acts can mutate into global consequences, just as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can create a hurricane half a world apart.
This Talmudic story is often recounted around Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, not only because it recounts the events leading up to the Destruction of the Temple but also because it showcases that a minor incident can have tremendous fall-out. The cruel and callous response of the rich man is paradigmatic for how we often respond; how we wield our tongue like a weapon.
The fate of the world hinges on words.

As we read Parashat Devarim this week, the portion opens with ‘V’eleh devarim asher diber Moshe al kol Yisrael’ – ‘these are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel’. Rashi continues to explain that the words spoken were rebukes of the failings of the Israelites. Yet, only ten verses later, Moses goes on to bless the Israelites: ‘Adonai Elohei avoteichem yosef aleichem kachem elef pa’amim vayavarech etchem ka’asher diber etchem’ – ‘May the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, add a thousandfold to what you are just as He has spoken.’ Midrash Yalkut Shimoni picks up on this incongruence, stating that it would have been fitting if someone else, like Balaam, had rebuked Israel, whilst the blessings that Balaam uttered should have been said by Moses! However, the Midrash concludes that rebuke should be said in love, by those who love you, like Moses loves the people, and that those who hate should bless instead.

Love and hatred, blessing and curse, life and death – all live on the tongue. As Proverbs states “Mavet v’chayim b’yad lashon; v’ohaveiyah yochal pariyah” – “Death and life are in the power of the tong and all those who love it shall eat it’s fruit.” (Proverbs 18:21).
We shall not only eat the fruit of our hands but also the fruit of our tongues; the consequences of how we use our words – for life or for death, for good or for evil – are within our control. The Temple was destroyed, our Sages tell us, because of ‘sinat chinam’, baseless hatred.
Whatever grievance or grudge the rich man bore to Bar Kamtza became unfounded by his reluctance to rise above himself and to embrace a path of ‘chesed’, graciousness, rather than hatred. He had the power to choose differently; to shape history for the better, to repair a relationship and to redeem the world. He made a choice not to do any of those things.

Tisha b’Av is often likened to a ‘Black Fast’ in contrast to Yom Kippur which is seen as the ‘White Fast’. Tisha b’Av is about so much more than the Temple, an institution we modern Jews may feel great ambivalence about to say the least. If anything, the Temple itself is a symbol of the power of one: the power of each Israelite to bring an offering that effects a ‘tikkun’, a repair, in the Divine-human relationship. The Jews of the early Rabbinic era who saw their Temple destroyed were bereft: how could they repair their cosmic connections now? Tisha b’Av is about genuine mourning for the fundamental brokenness of the world, hence it is ‘black’. Yom Kippur, is a mirror-image of that: it is about a genuine celebration of the fact that we have the power and choice to repair relationships, between human beings and with God, regardless of whether the Temple stands or not.

It is no coincidence, then, that there are seven weeks between the High Holy Days and Tisha b’Av. Seven weeks to turn darkness into light, destruction into redemption. To bring comfort to this unsettled world and to bring forth sweet fruit. The Midrash (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:5) recounts how Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking near Jerusalem with his student, Rabbi Yehoshua. Seeing the Temple ruins, Rabbi Yehoshua becomes despondent and wonders how the people can find atonement and repair Rabbi Yochanan is quick to comfort him, citing the Book of Hosea: “do not grieve, my son, for there is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement: through gemilut chasadim, deeds of loving kindness.”

The clock is ticking. We have seven weeks to reflect on our power, on our actions and on our speech. There has been much cruelty and harshness in the world; from the days of the Temple to this very day. But each of us has the choice whether we treat each other with respect or whether we turn away from our fellow human beings. In a quicksilver reality where words flash across screens faster than arrows, we can still take charge of whom we strive to be. 

The power is ours. 


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