This past Shabbos, my wife and I were, baruch Hashem, privileged to attend the bar mitzvah of our grandson Yehoshua Buchwald, son of Rabbi Naphtali and Shira in Houston, Texas. In previous articles, I wrote about the very special character of the Houston Young Israel/Community Kollel neighborhood. The bar mitzvah was magnificent in every way imaginable. It was a great source of nachas for my wife and me, plus our entire family, bli ayin ha’ra.
We flew to Houston via LaGuardia Airport, which I must say, despite its beautiful new appearance, has one of the most ridiculous air terminals I have ever been in. You take huge escalators to go up and arrive at some useless floor only to walk forever and take huge escalators back down to ground level to go to the gates. Along the way is a “people-mover,” a horizontal escalator that moves you along for about 25 feet. I guess the plans called for a “people-mover” to be considered up-to-date. So, they installed a “people-mover.” Andrew Cuomo considers this airport one of his great accomplishments. Considering everything else he managed to do, I guess he’s right.
In any case, I was sitting in the waiting area by our gate, together with our mechutan, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald. At some point, a young woman asked Rabbi Buchwald if he could watch her hand luggage, as she needed to use the restrooms. He told her sure, no problem. After a while, I noticed that the bags were no longer next to him. For a moment, he looked startled – until he spotted her sitting across the way at a different set of benches, together with her luggage.
Rabbi Buchwald was amused that not only did she not tell him she was back, but she did not even say thank you. That led me to discuss with him the fact that had this young lady been obviously Jewish, and had we seen her behave the same way to some random stranger, we would have been aghast! We would have looked to hide our faces and think: What a chilul Hashem (disgrace of G-d’s name)!
It then dawned on me that this concept of chilul Hashem is unique to the Jewish People. How many other members of religious or ethnic groups recoil when they see one of their own misbehaving? How many feel that the behavior reflects poorly on their god?
True, many will say, “Don’t think that this person represents all of us.” But how many will cringe in embarrassment? How many will feel that such behavior puts the name of their deity to shame? How many say we need to be extra careful in the way we interact so that we don’t cause a chilul of our people?
We all hate when we see a headline of one of ours caught in a terrible act. Or one of ours cutting in line. Or taking an indefensible political position. We take it personally. But that is really reflective of the fact that we are “banim LaShem Elokeichem,” truly G-d’s children. We don’t like to see His children misbehave or one of our siblings bringing shame to the family.
The bar mitzvah in Houston was a true joy, and many speeches were beautifully delivered, including from my son-in-law Reb Naphtali and Naphtali’s father, R’ Ephraim. The problem we had was relating the topic of bar mitzvah to the parshah of Tazria, which focuses on tzaraas, loosely translated as leprosy.
The takeaway I pointed to is that tzaraas is a disease that affected Jews only. If a Jew talked lashon ha’ra, idle gossip or slander of another person, he developed this syndrome, which had to be confirmed by a kohen, or trained priest. He was then banished to a camp outside the community until he was determined to be eligible to return. (Allow me this personal anecdote: My five-year-old grandson Yehuda Zahler, after hearing all the speeches, came running to his mother Sori all nervous. “Ma, check my tongue. I just talked lashon ha’ra about my brother Beedo!”)
What you glean from the tzaraas ritual, I told the bar mitzvah boy, is the fact that Jews are to be on special behavior their entire lives. Jews are constantly under the microscope. Our duty is to always be aware of that and make the effort to be a source of kiddush Hashem wherever life takes us.
So the fact that we are under pressure not to cause a chilul Hashem is a real kiddush Hashem!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.