As we approach Tisha B’Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, we remember that Jewish lives have been lost in all too many ways. The example of Aaron, the first High Priest and brother of Moses, who showed that peace and love are the way to bring people closer to Torah can show us the path to redemption.
Ezekiel (36:20) describes exile as the greatest source of chilul Hashem – desecration of G-d’s name because it will cause people to say, “these are the people of G-d and they had to leave his land.”
The Talmudic scholar Abbaye (Yoma 86A) cited this verse when he said “one who reads Torah, and learns Mishna, and serves Torah scholars, but his business practices are not done faithfully, and he does not speak pleasantly with other people, what do people say about him? Woe to so and so who studied Torah. Woe to his father who taught him Torah. Woe to his teacher who taught him Torah. So and so who studied Torah see how destructive are his deeds and how ugly are his ways.”
A few weeks ago, we saw an example of the kind of behavior that causes chilul Hashem. A group of youth disrupted three Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies at the egalitarian prayer area, outside the main plaza of the Kotel by blowing whistles and calling the participants in the ceremony “Nazis” and “animals.” One young man ripped a page out of a siddur and used it to blow his nose.
Is this any way to treat people? Is disrupting family celebrations, which 13- and 12-year-olds have spent months to prepare for, an effective way of bringing people closer to Torah?
The families involved chose coming to Jerusalem to celebrate their children’s coming of age in a meaningful way. They followed the law by holding their ceremony at the egalitarian area outside the main plaza of Kotel. They meant well. Even if they were violating halacha, they did not deserve to be treated in such a shameful way.
As appalled as I was by this incident, I did not fully appreciate how tragic it was until I met a new colleague.
As a teenager, Gavriella Lang was active in USY, the youth group of the Conservative movement. Her family attended a conservative synagogue in the suburbs of Washington DC. She became active in politics and lobbying for Israel. Along the way she realized she wanted something more and became a baalat teshuva, seeking a more intensive commitment to Jewish observance. She studied at various seminaries finding her way to Michlala, an outstanding institution of Torah learning for women in Jerusalem. Gavriella came on Aliyah and is now teaching Torah to other women. She recently married a student at Kerem B’Yavneh. Together, they hope to build a beautiful Jewish family that will produce generations that will follow in their footsteps. More Torah will be learned, and more mitzvoth will be done because of one person whose journey started in USY.
The three young people who came of age and others who were present at the celebration are potential Gavriella Langs. A positive experience in Jerusalem at an impressionable point in their lives may well have set them on a similar path. Who can blame them if instead they are saying, “if that is what Torah observant Judaism is, I want no part of it?” How many precious Jewish lives have been lost because we pushed them away?
Very few people would behave like the young men who disrupted the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Yet we need to realize that in the eyes of many, the way in which we conduct ourselves reflects on Torah and mitzvoth and can impact the lives of others.
We should never compromise on what we stand for or apologize for what we believe in. But we must always treat all of our fellow Jews with respect.
Rosh Chodesh Av, the New Moon of the month of Av, marks the yahrzeit of Aaron. He is the only person whose yahrzeit is mentioned in the Torah. Masei, the parsha that mentions the yahrzeit is always read on the Shabbat closest to Rosh Chodesh Av. It takes place during the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, when we remember the destruction that was caused by sinat chinam – baseless hatred.
The message is clear. At the darkest time of the year, it is Aaron, who lights our way to redemption. May we always be the students of Aaron, “loving peace, pursuing peace, loving humankind and bringing them close to Torah (Avot 1:12).”