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The Importance of Civility

It's always been a bit ironic that as we move into the more carefree summer months, in which we hope to relax and to live a life of leisure, that the Jewish calendar calls for us not to relax but to move into a three week period when we don't eat meat (except for Shabbat), and when we limit swimming, weddings and shaving. The three week period commences this year on July 1 and ends with Tisha B'Av July 21-22 (beginning after Shabbat). All this quasi-mourning-like behavior is due to the fact that we twice lost Jerusalem and the Holy Temples on this day. Our sages taught that we were exiled and destroyed, not because we were outmatched militarily, but also because we were weak inside. 

One of the people's flaws was that of sinat chinam, unwarranted hatred of our fellow man. The classic story is told of a host, Kamza, who was not ready to forget the dislike of his guest, Bar Kamza, even though the guest had come to Kamza's home thinking he was forgiven. The story's pathos is the missed opportunity of civility, forgiveness and friendship. In its place, the host humiliates the person who tried to build a relationship with him. Our sages compare the act of shaming another as the equivalent of shedding blood (murder), because humiliation drains the blood from the face or fills it with redness. Rabbi Shammai, a great rabbi, humiliated a potential convert by throwing him out of his Yeshiva when the convert challenged Rabbi Shammai to tell him about Judaism while standing on one foot. When the convert came to Rabbi Hillel with the same challenge, Rabbi Hillel responded, “That which is hateful to you, don't do to another, all the rest is commentary.” “Receive everyone with joyful countenance,” he says elsewhere. Anger and impatience get the best of even the greatest among us. Moses doesn't get into the Promised Land because of it and even God, at times, is held back and talked down by the righteous. Rabbi Meir once prayed for the death of sinners. “Pray instead,” says his wife, Bruria, “ for their repentance and change, and there will not be any sinners and wickedness will cease.” Rabbi Meir admits that his wife's solution is far better.

Another of the people's flaws was the way they spoke to and about one another. Lason Hara, or evil speech, is a grave sin, even if what we say is true. Motzi Shem Ra is badmouthing another. It's not even permitted to praise a person in front of someone who dislikes that person because it will often elicit words to the contrary! These laws are not easy to follow. All the more difficult is to hold one's tongue. Our sages tell us that we have one mouth and two ears, so that we can listen twice as much as we talk, and that we have teeth and lips to restrain our tongue from what we shouldn't say. There are even rules against rebuking another. It is an important mitzvah to call out another when they are doing something contrary the the Torah, but it should be done in private so as not to embarrass them. And if one knows that it will only entrench the bad behavior, it too, should be avoided.


A passage in Psalms reads, "Mi Ha ish HaChafetz Chayyim"– "Who is the lover of life? He who guards his mouth from speaking guile.” A sage asks, “Why are these two things, living life and guarding our lips, together in a sentence and what does one have to do with the other?” He tells us that everyone is born with a budget of words–a million and a quarter–whatever. Once they are uttered, that's it. It's all over and a person dies. But the words of the Torah, of comfort, counsel and empathy–those words don't count. This is why a person who guards his speech extends his or her life (Nachalat Zvi). I do not know if this is literally true, but it is clear that a person who is careful with speech will have more friends and confidants than one who isn't. I know that extends and enriches life.

These lessons of long ago apply doubly today, in the current atmosphere of insult and innuendo. Unfortunately, the media and the highest echelons of government and leadership have not learned these lessons. It is leading to unparalleled bipartisanism and polarization. It is affecting the way we and our children speak to one another. May we endeavor to strive toward the Jewish ideal of civility, and in so doing, help to transform the present climate as well as we can.

Please join us as we commemorate Tisha B'Av on July 21-22 and recall its lessons. May your summer days be longer, brighter and more relaxing, even as we observe our calendar's demands.