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Parshas Devarim (5768)

Tisha B'av and the Power of Speech

This Sunday, August 10th, is a very sad day for the Jewish people. It is a day of public fasting known as Tishah B'Av, which means the Ninth Day of the Hebrew month of Av, and it is the day on which the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and expelled all the Jewish people from the Land of Israel in the year 70 C.E.

The Talmud in Gittin 55b discusses the reasons why G-d allowed the Romans to destroy the Second Temple and to exile His people. The following story is related:

There was a man who threw a big party in a posh Jerusalem hotel, and asked the party coordinator to invite his best friend Kamtza. The coordinator didn't hear correctly and mistakenly invited the man's worst enemy, Bar Kamtza. When the host saw his worst enemy sitting there at the party, he told him to leave. Well, Bar Kamtza didn't want to be publicly humiliated, so he asked if he could stay, and offered to pay for whatever food he ate. The host refused the offer and demanded that Bar Kamtza leave immediately, this time in a louder voice. Bar Kamtza then offered to pay for half the expenses, and then for the entire cost of the party, just so that he shouldn't be embarrassed publicly, but to no avail. The host took Bar Kamtza by his ear, and threw him out of the ballroom.

Well, you can imagine Bar Kamtza's anger and shame. So what did he do? He decided to take revenge on all his fellow Jews who were sitting at the party and said nothing to stop the host from humiliating him in public. Bar Kamtza went to the Roman emperor and informed him that the Jews were rebelling against him. To prove this, he told the emperor that the Jews wouldn't even accept a sacrifice that was offered to them by the emperor. The emperor was curious to see if this was true, so he sent an animal sacrifice along with the Jew, Bar Kamtza, to be brought on the altar in the Temple. Along the way, Bar Kamtza made a blemish on the lip of the animal in a place where, according to Torah law, the animal is considered unfit to be brought as a sacrifice, but in the eyes of the Romans, is not considered a blemish at all. When the Rabbis received this sacrifice, they were in a quandary as to whether or not they should sacrifice this blemished animal. In the end, they decided against it. When the Roman emperor heard this, he realized that the Jew Bar Kamtza was right about the Jewish rebellion against him, and he proceeded to enter Jerusalem, burn down the Temple, and exile the Jews to the four corners of the globe.

All this because two Jews in the same neighborhood couldn't get along with each other. Indeed the Talmud says that the reason why we were exiled and lost everything that we once had, is because of this "baseless hatred" between our own people. And the Talmud also says that the Messiah will come and return us to our former glory only after we rectify this horrible infighting and learn to love each other like family should.

But it goes much deeper than that. If you examine the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza carefully, you will see that, ultimately, the root of all the trouble was the abuse of that greatest of gifts that G-d gave us - the power of speech. The host publicly shames Bar Kamtza, Bar Kamtza informs on the Jewish people - all abuses of the power of speech.

The Mahara"l of Prague, one of the great Torah sages and Kabbalists of the 16th century, explains the deeper meaning of the blemish on the lip of the emperor's sacrifice in the above story. He says that there is a fundamental difference between Jews and gentiles. We Jews are the people of the Torah, and, as such, our strength is in our voices - voices of Torah, study and prayer. We are therefore commanded by G-d to elevate our power of speech and the spoken word by using our voices for great and holy things. Our power of speech is so great in G-d's eyes, that he even granted us the power to create binding prohibitions upon ourselves in the form of vows. In Parshas Matos, the Torah states that if a Jew should vow with his mouth to abstain from a certain food or object, there is thus created upon him a Biblical commandment not to break that vow!

Words mean a lot to us, and we don't take them lightly. That's why the Jews are held to a higher standard with regard to the use and abuse of our speech. The gentiles are not enjoined to elevate their power of speech to that level. Therefore, says the Mahara"l, they don't see a blemish on the lip of an animal as a significant blemish. After all, it's only on its mouth, it's only words, and words don't really mean anything! But the Jew sees the mouth as the "Holy of Holies". After all, we can actually create Biblical prohibitions just with our words alone. And we can also destroy families, friends, even entire nations with the power of words alone. So a blemish on the lip is quite a significant blemish, and renders the animal unfit to bring before G-d.

This then is the powerful message of the upcoming fast day of Tishah B'Av. We are in exile, and the reason why we are still here and not where we should be is because we can't learn to get along with each other. So long as we tear each other apart with our power of speech, and we throw our neighbor out of the party over some petty fight, the Temple will not be rebuilt, and the spiritual and physical peace we so desperately crave will continue to elude us. The choice is in our hands - and in our mouths.

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