This week, I write in memory of my dear father, Norman Block, Nachum ben Nachman haLevi, whose jahrzeit (the anniversary of a death) is next week. Though he was never registered as a Scout, he was the brother-in-law, father, grandfather and great-grandfather of many Scouts, and he lived the Scout Oath and Law every day.
We are about to experience a fascinating period of a few days, during which we learn of both the beginning and the end of the Jewish people’s life in the Land of Israel during ancient times. And it all has to do with words.
On Shabbat, we read the first portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, Parasha Devarim. In it, Moses repeats most of the mitzvot (commandments) the Israelites will need in order to live in the land. The parasha begins Eleh devarim – “These are the words” – “that Moses spoke to all of Israel”. After a few sentences explaining part of the journey through the Wilderness, Moses teaches the people God’s commandment to enter Israel and take control of the Land: “See, I have given the Land before you. Come and possess the Land that God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them and their children after them.”
The other event we will mark is the destruction of the Second Temple. That tragedy happened on Tisha B’Av, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av. Not only was the Temple destroyed, during the next several decades, many of the Jews were killed, driven out of Israel or sold into slavery. The Jewish people lost control of our Land.
There are many theories about when the Exodus occurred. Many writers suggest it was about 3,500 years ago. We have good records for when the Second Temple was destroyed – the year 70 of the Common Era, or almost 2,000 years ago. So we were in control of our Land for about 1,500 years.
Tisha B’Av is also the date of several other terrible events. Our tradition teaches that was the day that the Meraglim (spies) brought back their misleading report (more words!) about the Land of Canaan and discouraged the Israelites from entering the Land – only Caleb and Joshua gave an accurate report about the Land. The First Temple was also destroyed on that day (there are disagreements on whether the year was 587 or 425 Before the Common Era). On Tisha B’Av 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain. And on Tisha B’Av 1914 World War I began, which was terrible itself but also led to World War II and the killing of 6 million Jews.
The Talmud and other sources give various reasons for the destruction of the Second Temple, but the reason discussed most frequently is that the people had baseless hatred (in Hebrew, sinat chinam) for each other. To explain baseless hatred, the Talmud (Gittin 56a) tells the story of Kamza and Bar Kamza, where a person mistakenly showed up to a party given by a host who considered him an enemy. Even though the guest offered to pay for the entire party to avoid being embarrassed, the host threw him out. The guest then told a false story to the Romans that made the rest of the Jews look disloyal, and this caused the destruction of the Temple. Notice that both the host and the guest used words – devarim – to hurt others.
The Torah teaches us both the host and the guest were wrong in their use of words. We should not embarrass anyone nor should we lie. Put in Scouting terms, we should be Kind, Courteous and Trustworthy.
Our founder, Lord Baden-Powell, had very practical advice about the wrongs that words can cause. As to letting someone be embarrassed, he wrote, “It does not matter how small the good turn may be – even if it is only to … say a good word for somebody who is being badly spoken of.”
B-P gave wrote this about words in a 1910 essay: “If our lads were trained as a regular habit to see the other fellow’s point of view before passing their own judgement on a dispute, what a difference it would at once make in their manliness of character! Such lads would not be carried away, as is at present too commonly the case, by the first orator who catches their ear on any subject, but they would also go and hear what the other side has to say about it, and would then think out the question and make up their own minds as men for themselves.”
So before judging other people or embarrassing them, be Kind, Courteous and Trustworthy and ask yourself if there might be other points of view to be considered.
Notes: B-P’s advice regarding a good turn comes from a letter to a London boys’ club, 1910, quoted in the collection of B-P writings, Footsteps of the Founder, by Mario Sica, p. 66. The quote about seeing the other fellow’s point of view is from the June 1912 edition of the British Scout Association’s Headquarters Gazette.