Each One Builds a Bridge (Tisha B’Av Sermon, 8/12/16)

Why were the Temples destroyed?  A question our people has asked in different ways for centuries.  A question for this weekend of Tisha B’Av – the anniversary of the Temples’ destruction.

HOW we ask this question determines the more important follow-up questions: What lesson do we learn? What meaning do we gain for our own lives – in our own time?

Jews have sometimes asked the question, “Why were the Temples destroyed?” through the filter of politics and political history.

We look back and see the years leading up to the second Temple’s destruction in the year 70 and we see political upheaval.  Jews had been living under Roman rule for over a century and were at their mercy.  Caligula directly threatened to destroy the Temple.  The leader Florus stole vast quantities of silver from the Temple.  There were times when Jewish practice was shown great disrespect.  Many Jews rebelled through riots and uprisings. The final attempt to throw off Roman rule ended in great destruction of life – tens and maybe hundreds of thousands of Jews died through this time of war – in addition to the destruction of both the Temple and Jerusalem as the center of Jewish life.

We might examine the question of why the Temples were destroyed, by looking inward.  Our early rabbis note that during this time of revolt, there was great disagreement and distrust among our own leaders – in fact, the rifts between those wanting out-and-out military rebellion against Rome and those who wanted to explore other possible options had grown so heated, that civil war had broken out. Our Talmudic teachers highlight this violent internal conflict as a lesson to us in how terrible strife within can contribute to our downfall.

There is also another traditional Jewish way to inquire about the reason for the Temples’ fall and the lesson behind it.  And that is to look at the destruction of the Temple not only as a historical event, but as a metaphor: representing times in life when communities or societies or comfortable, familiar circumstances fall apart.   Of course we know that disaster can often come from external sources – that our fate is never completely in our own hands.

Yet from early on in our history, our teachers have used the Temple’s destruction as a way to talk – not so much about situations that are out of our control — but factors leading to devastation that we do have a hand in.

I’d like to share one rabbinic story that is often used by our tradition as an illustration:  The legend of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.

The ancient story goes that within the Jewish community at the time of the Temple, there was a Jewish leader who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza.  The man was throwing a big party and he told his servant, “Please invite my friend, Kamtza.”  But by mistake, the servant invited the enemy, Bar Kamtza.

Well, Bar Kamtza took the invitation as a gesture of forgiveness and put on his finest clothes and he showed up at the festive celebration. But when the host noticed Bar Kamtza, he was shocked.  “What are you doing at my party!  I demand that you leave!”

Bar Kamtza was embarrassed. “Since I am here,” he requested, “let me stay. I will pay for whatever I eat and drink.” But the host refused his offer.

“Then I am willing to pay the full cost of the feast, but do not embarrass me any more…”

The host had Bar Kamtza dragged from the feast and thrown into the streets.

Bar Kamtza stood up, brushed the dust from his clothing and said to himself: “Since the rabbis were present at the feast and did not stop him, this shows they agreed with him. I’ll slander them to the Emperor Nero!”

As the story continues, Bar Kamtza ends up masterminding a situation that infuriates the Emperor, convinces him that the Jews are planning to revolt, and causes the destruction of the Temple.

Our rabbis tell this story, not because it reflects actual history, but to warn that interpersonal relationships gone wrong can end up with disastrous ramifications. That embarrassing one person – cruelly excluding one person – can end up affecting many in a negative or even catastrophic way.  Ill-will can build on itself.

But this story – often told on Tisha B’Av – also contains another lesson – the converse of the story. That if there is negative power in one negative interaction between two people – there is also great positive power in a positive interaction between two people.  Imagine how differently this story would have turned out had the party host displayed the values – the good Jewish values – of forgiveness, of respect and of welcoming.

We live in a world where bad things happen and many seem too vast and great for us to do anything about.  I believe that one reason the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza story is told on Tisha B’Av is to remind us of the power of the individual to affect change.  To remind us that reaching out to one person can build a bridge of understanding that goes way beyond a single moment.

Both Jews and Muslims are minorities living within a majority Christian culture.  Among those of us who are Jewish – Can you recall a time when someone said to you, “Oh – I had a friend who was Jewish!” and because of that, they saw you in a positive light?

Among those here who are Muslim, you, too, I am sure can recall a time when someone said to you, “I had a Muslim friend or a close Muslim co-worker!” and that positive experience made them see Islam in a different light.

We once had some difficulty with my daughter’s public school teacher related to religion and we set up a meeting with the principal.  The principal, who was close to retirement age, listened to us and then brightened.

“My best friend in the neighborhood when I was a little boy was Jewish!” and everything went well for us from that point on.

A lesson appropriate for Tisha B’Av: Do not underestimate the power of one individual encounter – one individual friendship – one individual bridge of understanding formed between people.

We are about to join in singing a teaching from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov, “Gesher Tsar Meod” – “The world is a very narrow bridge: do not fear.”  This song reminds us of the importance of keeping in our minds and hearts – always – that we are all on this life’s journey together.  And we make it across that narrow bridge only when we walk together, peacefully.  When we live up to our highest values of how we treat each individual human being – one encounter at a time.

I learned from Imam Ayaz, who is here this evening, that Islamic tradition, as Jewish tradition, places a high value on Ri-DAH: living our lives in a way that honors God and Godly values.  So I know that this anecdote from our tradition will resonate with them as it does with us:

It was after the Temple was destroyed, and Rabbi Yochanan was out walking with his student, Rabbi Joshua, near Jerusalem. Rabbi Joshua looked out at the Temple ruins and said: “Alas for us! The place that atoned for the Jewish people through the ritual of sacrifice lies in ruins! How can our people repair their souls and come closer to God?”

Rabbi Yohanan spoke to him these words of comfort: “Do not grieve, my son. There is another way now of gaining atonement, repairing ourselves and coming close to God – even though the Temple is destroyed. It is through gemilut chasadim – performing acts of lovingkindness among one another.”

On this Tisha B’Av weekend, let us take comfort in knowing that our souls, our relationships, our world can be repaired through each respectful individual encounter – each loving deed that we do for another – each caring word that we speak.  May we always recognize and harness the power each of us has to build a bridge and create a world of love.