Speech is an ephemeral thing: mere sound waves that cross a short distance and then vanish, as if they had never existed. People who insist on only recognizing things that are physically substantial tend to discount sound waves, and their effects on the world.
And yet our words define us, and our entire society. Our speech forms a critical link between our perceptions and how we share those perceptions with others. In a nutshell, our speech creates our own reality. Our speech is both a reflection of our worldview, and a projection that helps shape everything around us.
As a result, a polite society is built on civil speech. Those who insist on putting others down, on name-calling, invariably propagate negative views that redefine the reality of all the people with whom they come in contact. In Judaism we call this loshon hora, evil speech, and it encompasses a range of gossip and unproductive speech, speech that wears people down even when it stops short of outright character assassination.
This is one variation of a common idea: hate the sin, not the sinner; play the ball, not the pitcher, etc.
But there is another way of doing it as well, and I discovered it recently when reading about the death of Aaron the High Priest. In Jewish literature, Aaron is known as one who always pursued peace, in Hebrew a rodef shalom. He was someone who did everything he possibly could to avoid conflict and make people happy.
And yet, the Torah itself never calls Aaron by that title, or tells any story that suggests that he was a “pursuer of peace.” So why did our sages call him a rodef shalom?
The answer I discovered amazes me.
Aaron is not fleshed out as a three-dimensional personality; he usually shadows Moses, and he does what he is told, even when the situation is very challenging (such as serving without complaint after his sons have died). But there is one very considerable exception: at the insistence of the people who have become fearful after Moses had not come down from Mount Sinai when they expected him, Aaron colludes with the people and helps to create the Golden Calf
Our sages could have excoriated Aaron for the sin of the Golden Calf. But they did not. What they did instead was to see his act in the best possible light: our tradition is not that Aaron was worshipping an idol, or that he was weak or afraid in the face of an angry mob! Instead, he was called a pursuer of peace, a man who wanted others to be happy so much that he was willing to compromise fundamental principles if that is what it took to make people happy.
The “reality”, the data input, is the same either way: Aaron helped make the Golden Calf. The historical Jewish interpretation of that underlying fact, is really a critical lesson for us, especially when tempers run high. Even an act that is tantamount to idolatry can be done for the right reasons.
It is hard to assume that others mean well, to give people the benefit of the doubt. But when we fail to do so, jumping to angry and bitter conclusions, our society suffers. But when we seek to find the good, when we refrain from anger and nastiness, then we create the conditions in which people are most able to grow, to find common and positive ground, to reconnect with each other in holiness.
P.S. After the incident of the golden calf, G-d announces that Aaron would serve forever more within the Tabernacle, which makes sense: if someone is so eager to please that they can be corrupted, then it is best that they are in an environment where the only leader they serve is G-d’s own presence.