Jewish atonement for the Temple's destruction will come from kindness

As we approach the holiday that commemorates our birth as the Jewish people delivered by God out of slavery, it is imperative we find ways to unite.

 ACTS OF kindness will stand in as atonement.  (photo credit: Andrew Thornebrooke/Unsplash)
ACTS OF kindness will stand in as atonement.
(photo credit: Andrew Thornebrooke/Unsplash)

It is impossible to sit down and write this column without thinking about the end of the Second Temple era. For much of this year, I have been teaching a course at Matan on Talmudic personalities. It has centered around the last 200 years before the Temple’s destruction as the priesthood became increasingly corrupted; internal factions went to war over religious identity; nationalist extremism proliferated without compromise; and rabbinic leadership was weakened. 

In contrast to the book of Lamentations, which set forth a paradigm for Jewish suffering at the hands of a harsh external enemy, rabbinic texts turned inward. Instead of looking at what was done to them by the enemy, they critique the internal processes that led up to the destruction and exile that forever changed the trajectory of our history and the face of Judaism. 

In other words, they blatantly acknowledge the accountability of the Jews for what was unleashed on them by the Romans, particularly their own culpability in the process. By holding up a mirror, as they often do, to flawed leadership and poor decision-making, they teach us that growth happens when we examine the errors of the past.

Growth happens when we examine the errors of the past

One seminal example appears in tractate Gittin, which brings a series of stories about the Temple’s destruction. Rabbi Yochanan uses a verse in Proverbs, “Happy is the man who fears always, but he who hardens his heart shall fall into mischief,” to introduce the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, which according to tradition led to the downfall of Jerusalem. 

In the parable, a wealthy man sends his servant to invite his good friend Kamtza to the large banquet that he is hosting. In an unfortunate turn of events, the servant ends up inviting Bar Kamtza, the host’s sworn enemy. When the mistake is discovered at the party, the host orders Bar Kamtza to leave. Distressed at the public humiliation that will ensue if he leaves, Bar Kamtza pleads for discretion, offering to pay for the entire banquet! 

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (credit: Wikimedia Commons)The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In an unbecoming hardening of the heart, reminiscent of Pharaoh who hardened his heart and destroyed Egypt, the host insists Bar Kamtza be thrown out of the party. This indifference to Bar Kamtza’s embarrassment runs directly counter to multiple rabbinic statements that equate public humiliation with the act of murder. “Better had a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbor to shame” is a statement found in numerous Talmudic texts. 

Looking around, Bar Kamtza notices the hypocrisy of the rabbinic sages in attendance, who sit by silently as he is being publicly shamed. Assuming their complicity, Bar Kamtza is spurred to take revenge by encouraging the emperor to test the loyalty of the Jews, which leads to the siege over Jerusalem. 

This, however, is not the end of the story. Three very wealthy Jews take it upon themselves to provide food for the besieged citizens of Jerusalem, offering a reprieve from possible starvation. All is saved for the moment. However, these acts of charitable kindness defeat the plans of the extreme nationalists known as Sikkara, who are angling to overthrow the Romans and regain sovereignty. They burn down the warehouses of food in order to spur the now starving Jews of Jerusalem to join them in a war for independence. 

Against this backdrop, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai meets with his nephew Abba Sikkara and pleads with him to rein in his men. In a telling response, Abba Sikkara admits that he has lost control and that if he tries to stop his followers, they will kill him. 

IN A PARALLEL version of this story, the emperor Vespasian tells the Jews that if they will only show a small sign of submission, he will leave the city in peace. The zealots refuse, answering that as they have vanquished other Roman leaders, they will vanquish Vespasian. Rabbi Yochanan pleads with them for some concession, a compromise in order to spare the city and its inhabitants. 

When he realizes that their hearts too are hardened, he asks Abba Sikkara to help him leave Jerusalem so that he can ask Vespasian for Yavne. It is there, in a city whose name can be read yibaneh, meaning “will be built,” that he will create a center for Torah study, prayer and the performance of mitzvot. 

Jerusalem is no longer salvageable. Survival and revival will only begin in the aftermath of its destruction. It is with great foresight that Rabbi Yochanan puts into place a physical and spiritual framework that will withstand the destruction and begin the nascent steps toward strengthening Jewish identity in its aftermath. 

As he leaves Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan’s student Rabbi Yehoshua cries out that all is lost now that the place of atonement, the Temple, is destroyed. Continuing the leadership and foresight that led him to ask for Yavne, Rabbi Yochanan brings comfort to Rabbi Yehoshua by informing him that acts of kindness will stand in as atonement. 

Although the Temple is destroyed and there will be an end to the ritual acts of sacrifice, the ability to connect to God and bring atonement will now be facilitated through each and every individual who initiates an act of kindness. This is the corrective for a world in which the story of Bar Kamtza was allowed to unfold in the presence of the rabbis. Acts of kindness will elicit a divine response in the manner of sacrifices with their sweet savory odor. 

As we approach the holiday that commemorates our birth as the Jewish people delivered by God out of slavery and united around the narrative of Exodus, it is particularly imperative that at this time of fracturing and dissent, we find ways to unite.

Certainly, seeking out acts of kindness toward one another can create connections that can bring about the release of divine light into the world  and help us feel a sense of universal redemption as we sit down together around the Passover table.■

The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, along with courses on sexuality and sanctity in the Jewish tradition.