By Rabbi Geri Newburge
The Talmud (Gittin 56) tells the story of a man who wanted to throw a party, so he drew up a guest list and instructed his servant to send out the invitations. One of the names on the guest list was “Kamtza,” but the servant made a mistake and invited “Bar Kamtza” instead. Unfortunately, Bar Kamtza was the sworn enemy of the host!
When Bar Kamtza received his invitation, he was grateful to think the host wanted to repair their relationship. However, when he arrived at the party, the host took one look and told his servant to immediately remove Bar Kamtza from the premises.
When asked to leave, Bar Kamtza said: “I understand the mistake. But it’s embarrassing for me to leave the party. I’ll gladly pay the cost of my meal if you’ll allow me to stay.”
The host would hear nothing of this, and reiterated his demand to have Bar Kamtza evicted.
Bar Kamtza appealed again: “I’d even be willing to pay half the cost of the entire party, if only I’d be allowed to stay.”
Again the request was denied. At which point, the distraught Bar Kamtza pleaded: “I’ll pay for the entire party! Just please don’t embarrass me in this way!”
The rabbis who were present observed the entire exchange, but did not protest — so Bar Kamtza perceived that they approved of the host’s behavior.
The Talmud reports that Bar Kamtza was so hurt and upset, he went straight to the Roman authorities and gave slanderous reports of Jewish behavior that was disloyal to the empire. As a result, the Romans attacked and destroyed the Holy Temple.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, details 53 mitzvot (commandments). They cover a range of issues, including the rights of Israelite servants, personal liability, protections for the disenfranchised, laws of shemitah (the sabbatical year) and regulations about the holidays. The portion concludes with Moses transcribing and reading aloud the laws, and the Israelites committing to follow God’s laws.
These chapters of Exodus are known as Sefer ha-brit, The Book of the Covenant. They establish the religious, civil and ethical guidelines for the community. Our Talmudic story of shaming Bar Kamtza and its tragic consequences violates the spirit of these laws, and the covenantal relationship we share with God and the Jewish community.
We maintain this covenant, established by our ancestors thousands of years ago, every day — when we study Torah, take action to help those in need and pay attention to others. As we learn from the Talmud, such actions are critically important — an individual moment of humiliation can lead to the destruction of an entire community. When we recognize and celebrate that we are part of a community, we see our individual actions within a larger perspective.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Home We Build Together, teaches that the meaning of covenant is when “we create cooperation not by getting you to do what I want, but by joining together in a moral association that turns ‘You’ and ‘I’ into ‘We.’ Covenant is a binding commitment, entered into by two or more parties, to work and care for one another while respecting the freedom, integrity and difference of each.”
This is where first the host, by shaming a guest, and then Bar Kamtza fail to uphold the sacred contract we inherit.
Living in a fractured world, the concept of covenant becomes ever more precious and sacred. As we navigate the uncertainties in society, the lessons learned from the Torah and our sages are as instructive today as they were when they were first shared and taught. The Talmud echoes this idea of a social covenant, “Kol Yisrael aravim zeh ba-zeh — all Israel is responsible for one another.”
May our shared history, values and commitment to keeping Jewish life vibrant and relevant sustain and inspire us, even on the days when the world’s challenges threaten to overwhelm us.
Rabbi Geri Newburge works at Main Line Reform Temple Beth Elohim. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.