It happened when I was fourteen-years-old. I was at a weekend retreat somewhere in Nebraska. We were a group of several hundred teenagers from Reform Temples in places like Omaha, Springfield, Sioux City, and St. Joe. My cousin and I, along with several other teenagers from Wichita, had taken the bus to Kansas City where we met up with the chartered bus that would take us to the Nebraska campsite. It was really exciting to be on a bus that was full of Jewish kids, most of whom we had never met before. Once we got to the campsite there were even more, and half of them were boys. Coming from Wichita, where there were eight Jewish boys our age in town, all of whom we had known since we were born, this was an extremely heady experience.
However, I was extremely shy and tongue tied around the boys. I did become friendly with several nice girls but by Sunday morning I had to admit that I was rather disappointed. I had not been able to make the acquaintance of any nice guys. And then Abby came over to me.
Abby was one of the older girls, probably one of the leaders in the district, certainly popular. I was grateful that she would take the time to talk to me. She flattered me, asking about myself, my dreams, and my thoughts about the weekend. A good listener, she was also very affable and told me a bit about some of the other group leaders.
“You see, Stan, there,” she pointed to a burly young man who I had noticed for his sense of humor. “Ask him about his sister’s ballet lessons.”
I looked at Abby doubtfully.
“No, I’m serious,” she insisted. “He and his little sister are really close and he loves talking about her. She’s a prodigy in ballet.”
It seemed like a rather silly thing to do but if it would make Stan notice me, well what did I have to lose. Giggling a bit I moved closer to him and asked the question.
The genial smile immediately disappeared from his face and was replaced by anger.
“Why do you ask such a question?” he sputtered. “My sister had polio and is paralyzed from the waist down.”
I felt as if I had been socked in the stomach. I was caught in a nightmare. I looked to Abby for help but she would not meet my eye. Why had she done such a thing to me? I began to stutter my apologies and suddenly Stan’s genial smile reappeared.
“Just joking,” he laughed. “I don’t even have a sister.”
The crowd of kids around him guffawed with delight. I made my escape as quickly as possible. I had not gone far before Abby was at my side.
“Are you okay?” she asked, voice full of concern.
“I’m fine,” I mumbled just wanting to get as far away from her as possible.
“You turned really white in there,” Abby pressed. “I thought you might faint.”
Well, what did you expect I wanted to scream. Instead, I repeated that I was okay and fled to my room to finish packing. I was one of the first on the bus, happy to leave the weekend behind me.
That happened more than forty years ago but to this day I remember the weakness I felt in my knees when Stan told me his sister had polio. Words are powerful and his, a practical joke, hurt.
Our sages teach us that the first Holy Temple was destroyed on the ninth of Av because of three sins; murder, idol worship, and adultery. The Jewish people repented and seventy years later the Temple was rebuilt. The second one was destroyed, also on the ninth of Av, because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, which was fueled by lashon hara, evil speech. We have had over two thousand years to repent and still the third Holy Temple has not been rebuilt.
As we enter the Nine Days before Tisha B’Av we curtail many of our normal activities as signs of mourning. Instead of swimming, laundering, singing, dancing, sewing, and other activities we can use our time to learn the laws of proper speech. Then we can use the power of our words to heal, encourage, bond, and to communicate HaShem’s greatness. Perhaps this is the year when we will finally do true repentance and Tisha B’Av can change from a day of mourning to a time of happiness.