It’s that time of year again. It actually happens twice – once in the spring and once in the summer. It’s the periods of national mourning when Jewish barbers are on vacation and many Jewish men’s beards look scruffy and somewhat unkempt.
Between Pesach and Shavuos, the days of S’firas HaOmer, we mourn the loss of the 24 thousand students of Rabbi Akiva. Between the fasts of the 17th of Tamuz and Tish’ah B’Av, we observe The Three Weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.
For those of us who have the pleasure of working with young adolescents, these two time periods have an added dimension, i.e. that of awkward adolescent facial hair growth.
At their stage, they take pride in their beards, nascent as they might be. The different gradations of facial hair are itself a manifestation of the uniqueness of each individual. Some boys have thick sideburns with nothing beyond, others have hanging mustaches, while others have a patch under their mouths with virtually nothing on the sides of their faces. Then there’s the stubble and peach-fuzz that are constantly played with, in an effort to show others that there is indeed facial hair there, even though it’s not discernible. Many of these young men insist that they need shavers, in the hope that if they start shaving, their beards will grow in faster (that’s a myth). Some are lucky enough to have a perennial five-o’clock shadow look that seems to stagnate at a perfect size.
The more physically mature, deemed by their peers as being “like bears,” walk the halls with confidence, sporting facial hair that looks like it’s going to take over their faces. There’s always a few of those guys.
At times, a boy may have a full beard and a decent mustache, but the two don’t yet connect. (I must admit that I had such a “floating mustache” for years.)
A colleague often jokingly suggests to certain students that they apply some fertilizer in certain areas of their beard to make it look more balanced.
In camp last summer, we had a contest to decide who had the best “Three Week’s beard.” Papers were disseminated with pictures of various contestants, and campers had the opportunity to vote.
It is not coincidental that both national periods of mourning are connected with deficiencies in interpersonal relationships. The students of Rabbi Akiva lacked a modicum of respect for each other, and the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash was the result of baseless hatred.
The Midrash Tanchuma (Parshas Pinchas 10) states, “Just as people’s faces aren’t alike, so too their opinions aren’t alike.” Based on this midrash, the Kotzker Rebbe quipped that just as one doesn’t hate someone else because he has a different face, so too one should not hate someone else because he has different opinions and viewpoints.
When we see all the various variations of facial hair growth, it is a subtle reminder that our focus during these days is to respect every person for who he is. It’s also a reminder that every person progresses in his own way and on his own level. Some are quicker and some are slower.
Personally, I’m happy to be past that awkward stage. Now the variations in my and my peers’ beards have to do with how many white patches we have.