The Hebrew month of Av, a time of many of the worst tragedies in Jewish history, begins this year on 4 August. Tradition teaches that on the first day of Av, Aaron, the first Israelite High Priest and brother of Moses, died. Aaron is remembered as being a beloved figure and leader, much more so, in fact, than Moses, his more well-known brother. Whereas Moses was often stern and uncompromising, Aaron was gentle and kind. He was known as a peacemaker. When quarrels arose or tensions brewed and brought out the worst in people, Aaron gently sought to resolve the situation by bringing out the best in people, reminding everyone of how they were needed, loved and were loved by one another.
The sadness of Av that begins with Aaron’s yarhzeit continues through until Tisha b’Av, the 9th day of Av. On that day, Jews recall many calamities, but one in particular is the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The early rabbis blame baseless hatred and needless infighting amongst Jews for the destruction of the Temple.
Following the destruction of the Temple and the second war with the Romans afterward, a lament was composed about the death of many rabbis, saying:
When Rabbi Meir died, there were no more storytellers.
When Ben Azzai died, there were no more true students of Torah.
When Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa died, there were no more men of action.
When Rabbi Jose Ketanta died, there were no more pious people.
When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai died, there was no more wisdom.
When Rebbe died, Rabbi Judah the Prince, it was the end of humility and fear of sin.
One by one, all the important qualities of the world seemed to pass away.
One could feasibly add Aaron’s name to that list and keep with the theme. When Aaron died, there were no more peacemakers, and without Aaron over a long period of time, we were doomed to descend into baseless hatred and self-destruction. If the story ended there it would be a great tragedy. It doesn’t end there, however.
The text continues with an objection from Rabbi Joshua. He stands up and says, “Do not say that humility is gone, for I am here.” Although it is an interesting virtue to claim, it does say something. While we naturally lament, grieve, and mourn after a loss, we cannot allow all of the best qualities in the world to belong solely to the past or to other people. Even though Rabbi Joshua’s claim of being humble does not sound humble at all, he is actually teaching something very important: humility can only go so far. Humility should not be understood as claiming inability, especially when it comes to moral virtue. While it may be natural to say, “If only Aaron were around, this never would have happened,” we are all empowered to be good people, to be peacemakers. What we mourn on Tisha b’Av isn’t necessarily what happened, but what did not have to happen. As such, Av is as much about hope as it is destruction because we can be like Aaron.
Some have the custom of calling the remainder of the month after Tisha b’Av, Menachem Av, “Av of Comfort,” because it asserts that the past does not have to repeat itself. Rather, the message is that salvation will come through learning the most basic lesson of all, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”