Lessons Learned From the Lion of Av

Aerodynamically, a bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly. But no one told the bumblebee…so she flies.” I read this quote on a bumper sticker years ago and thought it was a cool trivia fact but not much more. Almost three years ago, the message came alive for me. Temima was 12 months old and was receiving physical therapy a few times a week to help her reach her milestones. One evening, Lisa, her PT, and I sat on the rug in the middle of my living room discussing her progress for her mid-year report. Temima had just began cruising, holding on to our L-shaped sectional and walking across the room. Lisa was outlining the goals for the next six months, and said, “You know, we’re not going to put independent walking down as a goal. Many babies are content to have mastered cruising and feel no need to walk. Considering Temima’s poor muscle strength, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect her to walk within this term. Instead, let’s…” Lisa stopped talking, cutting off her own sentence because I was gesturing wildly for her to look behind her. At the exact moment that Lisa was telling me that Temima would probably not have the strength yet to walk, Temima took her first five steps across the room.

We, all of us, have far more strength than we give ourselves credit for. It’s scary to think that most often, we are the ones telling ourselves that we can’t fly, shouldn’t fly, shouldn’t even try for fear of failure. We left off last week with a Mashal about greeting the Lion of Av. Let’s now discover his true lesson.

R’Yochanon says: because of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa Yerushalyim was destroyed”

The story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa is a familiar one: A wealthy and prestigious man decides to host a party. He addresses invitations to his family, his friends, and to the community members he wants to invite and hands them off to his servant to be delivered. The servant errs and delivers Kamsa’s invitation instead to a man named Bar Kamsa, a man on decidedly unfriendly terms with the host. Bar Kamsa believes the invitation to be his and decides to attend the feast. At the party, the host sees Bar Kamsa and is infuriated. He confronts him aggressively and insists that he leave, even while Bar Kamsa begs to be allowed to remain so as to save face. Bar Kamsa goes so far as to offer to pay for his meal, and even for the entire party, to spare himself the embarrassment of being thrown out, but the host angrily refuses and in a loud and ugly scene throws him out. Bar Kamsa leaves the party and plots against the Yidden, approaching the Emperor with a plot that successfully leads to the churban.

That’s the story of Tisha B’Av, as we’ve all learned it year after year. In this post, we’re going to pose a few questions, both about this story and about Av, and come to a deeper understanding of what this story means.

Question number one is about Kamsa. He’s remembered generation after generation, and mentioned each time we tell this sad story. When we think of the churban, we immediately think that it was, as R’ Yochanon said, because of the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. His name has gone down in infamy as the cause of the destruction of our temple. But what, if anything, did he do to deserve that? Is he even really a character in this story? He never got an invitation, never responded, didn’t show up at the party and seems to be completely uninvolved. Why does there seem to be some level of fault found within him?

Question number two is about the month of Av. (Those who read the blog regularly know that I can’t resist this topic!) As we’ve discussed before (just once…or twice…or eight times), each Jewish month has an astrological symbol that is representative of that month’s history and power. For example, Tishrei, the month of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is a set of scales, representing the qualities of judgment and Hashem’s interactions with us in that month; Nisan is lamb, representing the Korban Pesach, and also the attitude of B’nai Yisrael as they left Mitzrayim; and so on.

When we think of the month of Av, our first thought is usually a visual of the flames of the churban. The image of the walls of the Bais Hamikdash burning, as the Yidden were murdered and exiled in chains, the blood and tears shed, are all also visuals that Megillas Eicha and the Kinos graphically describe. But as we mentioned in the conclusion of our last article, the month of Av is represented by a lion. What does a lion have to do with the month of Av?

To recap, we have two questions so far: Why was Kamsa at fault? And why a lion for Av? Our next question will unravel the answer…

The story of the churban continues, with the emperor listening to Bar Kamsa and sending a lamb to the Yidden to bring as a korban, as a test to whether they are secretly plotting against him or not. Unbeknownst to the emperor, a small imperfection mars the lamb’s eyelid, rendering it unfit for sacrifice. The Sanhedrin meets to discuss their options—should the lamb be brought anyway to save them from the deathly retribution of the emperor? Or should they reject the offering and let come what may? R’ Zecharya, the eldest and the head of the Sanhedrin lets the others weigh in, and ultimately follows their lead in deciding to reject the offering.

R’Yochanon said because of the meekness of R’ Zecharya the Temple was destroyed, Yerushalyim was destroyed, and we were exiled”

Question number three is that it seems like more than one person is being blamed for the churban. R’ Yochanon, who we quoted at the beginning laying the blame at the doorsteps of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa, seems to now turn around and blame R’ Zecharya ben Avkilus! Complicating the matter even more is the fact that the subject of blame seems to be quite disputed. Bar Kamsa himself, of course, argued that it was the fault of the Rabbanim who were present at the scene of his humiliation for not protesting. The commentators on the gemarah go back and forth on the issue of blame, seeming to side more with Bar Kamsa rather than with R’ Yochanon. So question number three is, is R’ Yochanon changing his mind regarding Kamsa and Bar Kamsa being at fault? Are the meforshim contradicting both his opinions? And, really, where does the fault lay?

The answer to question number three is the key to all our answers. R’ Yochonon does not change his mind, and there is no contradiction. The middah, the characteristic, that the churban is being attributed to is all the same, and all those being accused are guilty of it.

Let’s look at each accused person, analyze the situation and their exact role, and then understand what the fault is. First, the Rabbanim. They sat by quietly, with no protest, while Bar Kamsa was humiliated, afraid to protest because of the host’s power and influence. Had one Rav stood up and tried to help, had one Rav tried to calm the host down, had any one person left the party in protest, had only one person shown that he cared—the outcome may have been completely different. Bar Kamsa would not have felt like an outcast, would not have felt cut off from B’nai Yisrael, and he wouldn’t have sought to destroy them. As it was, he left, rejected and humiliated and sought revenge not only against the host, but against everyone. The Rabbanim should have realized the power they wielded.

Now we move on to R’ Zecharya ben Avkilus. As the Av Sanehedrin he should have spoken first, unhesitatingly and unapologetically laying down the law, so to speak. Instead, he defers to the younger members of the court, and in the end makes his decision swayed by fear of public opinion. He, as the leader, should have stood up and done the right thing, and not worried what others said, thought, or would do. He, too, should have realized the power he held.

Within these two incidents we see the root of the problem emerging. The problem that led to the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash was that people did not know their own worth, their own ability to influence others. The Rabbanim at the party were too humble to speak up as the atrocity of embarrassing another Jew happened before their eyes. We can imagine them thinking that it was better to let the scene just finish and die down rather than involving themselves in what was essentially not their business. R’ Zecharya, the leader, humbled himself and let others join in the decision of what to do, and he made a final decision based on their fear of what people would think.

Let’s go back to question number one: Why was Kamsa at fault? The Maharal writes that the problem of sinas chinom, senseless hatred, that B’nai Yisrael were guilty of was that the Yidden would break off into groups, and each group would oh-so-righteosly fight against and slander the other groups, declaring only their own way correct. Instead of serving Hashem peacefully, side-by-side with achdus, the groups were invested in vilifying each other. (We discussed this point in our first article on Tammuz as well, stating that this is what caused the idols to be placed in the Bais Hamikdash.) There are many ways one can righteously serve Hashem that are meant to respectfully coexist. But the mindset here was: “We have achdus, our community is great, we have Ahavas Yisrael. But not with you. We don’t like you. You’re not our type. You’re not welcome in our circle.”

As a friend of the host, and a member of the clique, R’ Yochanon is telling us that Kamsa had the power to influence his friend and to break the toxicity of the sinas chinam. By being in a friendship, or in a circle of friends, so exclusive that others were not welcome, and not trying to help the situation, not trying to influence his friend the host, Kamsa, ldorai doros, forever and ever, is mentioned as the cause of the churban bayis. Kamsa did not know his own power. Kamsa was too humble-Who am I to say something to my friend? I’m not his rav, I’m not his wife, I’m not his mother. I’ll just sit at home, nothing to do with humiliating anyone. Who am I to rock the boat among my friends and try to change anything?

Just like R’ Zecharya, and just like the Rabbanim who were at the party, Kamsa did not know his own worth. He was indeed guilty—guilty of not knowing how great he was, how great any “joe-shmoe” in Klal Yisrael is.

We know the Torah was given on Har Sinai, the most ‘humble’ among the mountains. The question can be asked that if humbleness is so important, why choose a mountain at all? Why wasn’t the Torah given in a valley, or at least on a plain? The answer is that Hashem wanted to teach us the power of a Jew is in his self-esteem and self-respect. You’re a Jew, you have Torah and mitzvos, you’re a mountain. Don’t be a haughty mountain, but stand tall and know your own worth.

Question number two was, why does a lion represent Av? To answer this question let’s consider what a lion is and is not. A lion is not the biggest, tallest, heaviest, or strongest animal in the jungle. Not by far. But it’s universally acknowledged as king of the jungle. Why? A lion isn’t the strongest and mightiest among animals, but he’s well aware of his own status and position. A lion will attack animals larger than itself, faster than itself, and stronger than itself without hesitation, retaining and reinforcing his image as the king.

The message of the month of Av is not about being stronger than everyone, wealthier than everyone, more righteous than everyone, or higher than everyone on the social hierarchy. The message of Av is about knowing your own strength and not being scared to act on it. The lion knows his own strength, and dares the other animals to try and challenge his rule. We’re told to be גבור כארי, strong like a lion, to serve Hashem. The unique trait of a lion is that he defers to no one—he knows his strength and doesn’t let anyone get in his way or intimidate him. The month of Av, in which tragedies happened because people did not know their own power, is symbolized by a lion to remind us how fatal this mistake can be. Being as strong as a lion in serving Hashem means that we should know our strength, know our own worth, and not be scared to do the right thing, to speak up.

The course of history has been set by such people and by the ordinary Jews who stood up and made a difference.

In the story of creation, the animals are created on the fifth day, and the Torah calls them “נפש חיה”, nefesh chaya. By contrast, when Adam is created he is called “אדם” right away. But then something strange happens. The possuk says

ויפך באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי אדם לנפש חיה”

…and Hashem blew into Adam the neshama, and Adam was a nefesh chaya

Clearly this is surprising! We would think that it would say that “and Hashem blew into Adam the neshama, and Adam was an elevated human being,” or “and Adam was an eved Hashem…” or some such term! How is it that the addition of the neshama causes the possuk to revert and call him ‘nefesh chaya’? The Kli Yakar explains that Torah is telling us that even though we have a neshama, even though we’re people with tremendous potential—it’s only potential. Until we stand up and do the right thing with that neshama, there’s no automatic elevation, and we remain just nefesh chaya.

I’d like to end with one final question. The pattern of human grief and mourning is that the most intense feelings are experienced on the first days, followed by gradual comfort and lessening of pain as the passage of time heals. The halachos of mourning reflect this pattern as we sit for the seven days of shiva, which is intense mourning and grief, then have a period of lighter mourning for the sheloshim, and then maintain light availus for a year. Why is it then that for the mourning the Bais Hamikdash we seem to go backwards? We seem to start mildly, we with a shorter fast day, then progress to three weeks of no music, then nine days of no meat, then finally a day of real availus, of sitting on the floor and weeping? Why is it that the mourning level increases?

One of the earliest mentions of our galus is when Avraham questioned Hashem about the future of his progeny and Hashem answered him with the bris bain habesarim. Avraham cuts nine animals in half and makes a path in between his korbanos. There, Hashem tells Avraham about the exiles B’nai Yisrael will endure. The message for Avraham and for us, his progeny, was that B’nai Yisrael can survive in these exiles by drawing close to Hashem. The word korban is from the same root as the Hebrew verb that means to draw close, teaching us that the purpose of sacrifice is to bring one closer to Hashem. While we don’t bring animal sacrifices nowadays, we can quite literally sacrifice for Hashem, by giving up that which we desire to come closer to Hashem. In lieu of killing an actual animal, we sacrifice our inner “animal” and rid ourselves of that which takes us away from Hashem. Thus, we rise above the animal—the nefesh chaya—by making these korbanos.

Our mourning process is reversed here because in truth, we may not have lost the Bais Hamikdash yet. The purpose of mourning usually is to help a person process his grief at what he has lost. We choose to go through the mourning process, giving up what our inner nefesh chaya craves—food, music, etc—and we heighten our spirituality and draw closer to Hashem. The purpose of our mourning here is to get us to go back to Hashem, and we have a chance not to need Tisha B’av.

The gemarah says that any generation in which the Bais Hamikdash is not rebuilt, it is as if it was destroyed in that generation. This means that this coming Sunday, something terrible is scheduled to happen. On Sunday, the Bais Hamikdash, our Bais Hamikdash, is scheduled for destruction. And just as it could have been saved 2000 years ago if B’nai Yisrael knew their own value, it can be saved through the actions of individuals who are גבור כארי.

In every generation, there are the few people who save the whole nation, the few people that if it weren’t for them, all would be lost. Think about the past 2000 years of galus—everything Klal Yisrael has gone through. The Holocaust, terrorists, torture, and persecution. The sickness and death and tragedy. The acts of stomach-churning evil we’ve endured. Kamsa, and indeed any Jew at that time who could have prevented sinas chinam, had no idea what a destruction he could have stopped, if he had taken a stand and spoken up. The Jews in that generation should have known who they were, stood tall like mountains, and done what’s right.

In every generation there are a special few who save the rest. If I may, I’d like to suggest that the Tisha B’Av message of this article is a reminder for us each to know our own power. We’re instructed in Pirkay Avos that in a place that there are no leaders, put in the extra effort to make yourself a leader. The generation we are living in has many amazing aspects: unsurpassed levels of chessed and Torah learning and beautiful families and communities of Torah Jews…But so did the generation that witnessed the destruction. The fatal flaw was not at the foundation or within the leaders and governance, but rather it was on the individual level. Baseless scorn and dislike, disapproval and disagreements between the “little people” that made up these beautiful Torah communities that could have been healed had enough of those “little people” taken a stand and endeavored to resist the sinas chinam within his own group, becoming a leader.

Let’s not clip our own wings. Let’s know our strength. Often, in any group or community, all it takes is one person’s choice and conviction to sway the crowd. Any one of us can be that one person.

May it be Hashem’s will that this Sunday, instead of mourning and destruction, we will merit the final redemption with the heralding of Moshiach, and may we merit to ascend to Yerushalyim with hearts full of joy.

ומחה ה’ דמעה מעל כל פנים וחרפת עמו יסיר מעל כל הארץ
ואמר ביום ההוא הנה אלוקינו זה, זה ה’ קיוינו לו נגילה ונשמחה בישועתו.
עושה שלום במרומיו הוא (ברחמיו) יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל ואמרו אמן

“And Hashem will wipe away tears from off all faces and the degradation of His nation will be removed from all the lands
And it will be said on that day: “Here, this is our G-d, this is the Hashem for Whom we hoped, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”

He who makes peace in His high places, may He (in His great mercy) make peace for us and for all B’nai Yisrael and we will say Amen.


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2 Comments on “Lessons Learned From the Lion of Av

  1. Wow! This is so inspirational! I recently heard from R Ephraim Shapiro about Kamsa as well and he pointed out this same concept on the flip side. He approached the question regarding Kamsa’s guilt by asking the question where was Kamsa during the party? He says that Kamsa wasn’t there because he didn’t get an invite and he pointed out from there that Kamsa was insulted that he wasn’t invited. R Shapiro takes it further and says if one is a true friend and understands his worth to his friend and his power as such, then with or without an invitation he will show up to join the simcha, and that’s where his guilt lies. May HaShem grant us all the self worth to know what we can accomplish and the knowledge to understand the responsibility that comes with our magnitude of our worth.


  2. Wow! Very empowering article! Know your worth and have strength to speak up!


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