A story of embarrassment

By Laura Seymour

Dear Friends,

Yes, another book but this time a children’s book from PJ Library that retells a Talmudic story in a unique way. This story is often told at Tisha B’Av as the occurrence is said to have led to the destruction of the Temple but the message is important year-round as it has to do with how we use our words. The term “onaat devarim” is the prohibition of saying anything that would pain, anger, hurt, frighten, bother or embarrass another person. The Talmud says, “Money can be reimbursed but the hurt from words is irreparable; money is a person’s property, but words hurt the person himself.” We even read that the sign of turning red when embarrassed is almost like murdering someone!

So what is this famous story of embarrassment? It deals with something as simple as an invitation to a party. A wealthy man has a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. The party invitation goes to the wrong person, who shows up for the party (in the day of evites and wrong email addresses, one can only wonder how often this happens). Bar Kamtza shows up and is told to leave but he says he will go so far as to pay for the entire party to spare being embarrassed. However, he is turned away! How far does his anger go? In a Talmudic discussion, it goes to the destruction of the Temple, which the rabbis say was caused by “sinat chinam — baseless hatred.” There is much to think about and understand with that term. We may understand hatred, but adding the concept of baseless teaches something even more important. (Yes, there is lots more to the story so please do some reading!)

The most important question is the lesson or lessons we take from this “little” incident of embarrassment. The PJ Library book is “Lenny and Benny” by Naama Berziman and actually tells the story from the perspective of two rabbit friends who became enemies and then the invitation mix-up occurs. The book definitely takes a much softer approach but the ending and the message is, of course, for children: the remedy for “sinat chinam” is “ahavat chinam — unconditional love.”

There is a rabbinic quote telling people to repent the day before their death. As we may not know which day that may be, the idea is to always look to your actions and repair as you go along rather than let things build up and get worse. Whatever happened between the wealthy man (who is not named) and Bar Kamtza may be significant or slight, but it continued and hurt not just the two men but the community. Hopefully we can read this story and think about times that started with embarrassment and grew, and stop the anger at the moment. Lenny and Benny realized the friendship was more important than the incident that caused the break. Yes, it is easier for bunnies in a children’s book but why not reach out?

Laura Seymour is Jewish experiential learning director and camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.

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