A GENERATION OF VICTIMS
Several generations ago, psychology introduced us to a concept that changed humanity. A Freudian theory developed that adult mental ills were the result of damage done to the developing ‘psyche’ by parents who traumatized their children during critical stages of their early development. Ever since, parents and educators are blamed by their children and students for their own mistakes and failures throughout life. More and more people believe that they are victims of society or culture as well. It seems as if blame is laid on anyone and everyone in an attempt to help the sophisticated citizen of the 21st Century make peace with himself. In spite of this, history has never witnessed a generation as depressed as ours. In a recent survey, it was reported that more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than all other illnesses combined!
Ceaseless efforts by parents and costly innovations by educators seem to be of no avail. Although concerned parents undergo parenting training and wade through endless pages on childrearing, results suggest that they are merely grinding water. Somehow, even their carefully handled “fragile eggs” leave their parents in dismay. Seeing their perfect, cute little stars “tick off” in their teens like time-bombs can be more than frustrating. With tears of anguish and a choked voice, one such devoted mother blurted out: “It would have been easier for me to raise a Down’s Syndrome child than to go through the nightmares I experienced with my teenager!”
Is there any way out of this confusion, this veritable avalanche of ‘responsibility shift’? Can there be a better approach than to buy another video game for our children, hot new car for our teenagers, or for us to take another exotic vacation? Looking at this week’s Torah portion will give us a clearer picture of how G-d expects us to live.
There is a provocative episode at the end of our Parasha which can shed light on this question. The Ben Mitzri – the son of an Egyptian father and Jewish mother – failed in his attempt to integrate into his mother’s tribe of Dan. Since tribal affiliation is established through the father, Moshe’s court ruled that this son of an Egyptian father could not qualify for membership in any tribe. Out of frustration, the rejected fellow committed the grave sin of cursing the Name of G-d (which he had heard at Mt. Sinai). For this, he was sentenced to stoning. His executioners were to be the very people who heard him utter the curse.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 45b) states that one who curses G-d is considered a kofer (heretic). In light of this, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz asks the following thought-provoking question: How could a Jew who witnessed G-d’s revelation at Mt. Sinai, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the miraculous redemption from Egypt, suddenly fall from such a high level and act in a manner befitting an atheist?
The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back
To understand how the Ben Mizri fell so far and so fast, we must examine the factors which coincided, bringing him to his demise. First, since he had an Egyptian father, the Ben Mitzri inherited a tendency to belittle G-d. We find this tendency in the terminology used by Pharaoh in his exchanges with Moshe (See Baalei Hatosofot). From his mother, he picked up another tendency which contributed to his undoing. Indeed, her name – Shlomit bat Divri – vividly reflected her actions. Shlomit: She would say Shalom to all passers-by, including unfamiliar men. Bat Divri: she was always chattering, and thereby projecting a flirtatious image of herself. Through her unconventional behavior, she called attention to herself, and the Egyptians perceived her as a harlot. Shlomit’s extroverted behavior must have been a reflection of a deep thirst for social recognition and acceptance. This tendency or trait was picked up by her son who, like his mother, felt a strong need to connect and “belong” – not being able to “stand on his own two feet.” Upon hearing the verdict of Moshe’s court, he now felt rejected and dejected as never before.
Putting this all together, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains the abrupt fall to the lowest of low. When the Ben Mitzri felt rejected by society – he lost himself and acted upon his deep-seated tendency to belittle G-d. This grave sin was not excused in light of his upbringing and circumstances. Quite the contrary, he was to be reminded before being stoned to death: “You are liable for your actions!” (Rashi)
Responsible or Excusable?
Although many of us go through life convinced that our negative traits and tendencies are not in our control – that is actually a subconscious decision we made or a belief that was drummed into us. Indeed, this faulty perception is nothing less than any other mistake that the Merciful G-d holds us accountable for, because He gave us a way to overcome our deficiencies. The key is to use the tool of bechira chofsheet (freedom of choice) which He entrusted to us. A Tzelem Elokim – one created in G-d’s image – is never doomed to be a victim if he exercises his freedom of choice. Is there a more empowering concept than this? Ignorance of it may well be the biggest blunder of our generation.
Self Esteem Is Not For Sale
Admittedly, self-esteem involves feeling good about oneself. Thus, parents with a child not keeping pace are faced with the challenge of how to foster his or her self-esteem. One possibility is to tell the child that given his capabilities (and/or learning disorders), his achievements are outstanding. Alternatively, parents can say: together, let us figure out ways to improve your studying, so that next time your mark will be slightly higher. The latter approach is undoubtedly more tedious and difficult. The first, however, practically puts success out of the child’s range and, in a sense, casts doubt on G-d’s ability or willingness to help the child. (Although “learning disorders” are real, of course, they are often used by teachers and parents as an excuse to abdicate their responsibility for helping the child realize his or her full potential.)
Self-esteem is really more about believing in oneself than merely feeling good about oneself. In religious terms, it has an even deeper meaning: it means to believe in the Creator Who made all of us with limitations, and that each one of us is expected to overcome these limitation to the greatest extent possible.
Many well-intending parents try to create a bubble for a child with challenges. Not trusting that he can overcome the challenges, they portray the world in a way that the child feels good about himself. I recall how a certain mother would hop on the school bus and threaten the children who mocked her anti-social son. She obviously wanted to defend her boy by waving fingers at the naughty children, as if she were erasing them from existence. Those children might have learnt their lesson. But, unfortunately, her son never acquired social skills or tact, and suffered his whole life feeling that everyone else was to blame for his social problems.
Although these well-meaning parents are trying to give their children self-esteem, they are making a grave mistake. You can never really “give” someone lasting self-esteem. A person has to work hard on gaining belief in himself: only investing his own efforts will foster self-motivation and eventually self-esteem. After the first accomplishment, he wants to go on to a bigger one. After facing the world successfully, the child will want to do it again. If you hide his face from the world, once he sees that his version of reality is mistaken, he will only want to bury his face in the ground.
This may explain the reason why many teenagers in our generation are “time bombs.” Many teens that I come in contact with tell me that they never did anything in their entire life that they feel good about. They don’t feel that they had their own “independent success story.” Their successes usually resulted from a course of events where they were dependent on something or someone. The fact is that when kids succeed in overcoming difficulties, they experience an inner pride which makes them feel good about themselves. In contrast, unhappy kids have often never been in a healthy competitive environment where they could prove themselves to themselves.
THE RESPONSIBLE PARENT
One bad way to parent children is to ignore them. Another bad way to parent children is to be over obsessive about them. There is a long list of what not to do. But there is no one right way to be a parent. The reason for this is, as King Solomon said,חנוך לנער על פי דרכו Bring up a child according to his way (his nature). The right way to parent varies with each and every child and the strengths and weaknesses of each and every parent. It is also dependent upon significant factors in each particular situation. People are not machines, programmed for standard behavior. Just as it is hard for us to figure ourselves out, it is hard for us to figure out how our children perceive us; however, we must invest effort in doing so and guide them accordingly.
Even after doing their very best at bringing up their children, many parents are beside themselves when the child does not develop as they had expected. Although we can easily understand and sympathize with such parents, there is, nevertheless, a grave mistake in their way of thinking. A parent has the responsibility to do his best – the best he can at a given time with his given abilities. That’s it.
I have spent time talking with more than a few teens who did not like the “way” of their parents. They felt either their parent (or parents) ignored them or was (were) too obsessive about them. So instead, they found their “own way”.
This “new way” upon which the child has set out causes parents to become self-critical or even to assume a self-defeating attitude toward themselves. It’s sad to see parents accusing themselves and blaming themselves for their children’s failures and mistakes. This is one of the greatest causes for depression: taking responsibility for another person’s negative behavior when you actually have no control over it. After spending time with children “at risk” and getting to know them well, I often have parents ask me, guiltily, – “So, what was it that I did wrong?”
I hate that question. It puts me on the spot. And the truth is how can I know? There are so many factors causing the child to want to be distanced from his parents at this age: a desire for independence, teenage syndrome, not having the greatest of friends, wanting to find his own way, social immaturity, peak of hormonal changes, etcetera, etc. More often than not, this is just a passing phase. The child can be given guidance by someone he/she chooses, when he/she is open to counseling. The right person can help him/her navigate through this unsettling time and come out of it successfully. There is no way any human can judge whether parents were good or not. Many times, what was right for one child is not suitable for another. So instead of taking responsibility for a question I can’t possibly answer, I turn the tables and ask the parents, “What do you think?” And then they pause and they answer me, “I hate that question.”
The Torah solves the issue for us this week. It tells us how a parent can know if a problem was connected to bad parenting, or if it was something that developed over time, due to circumstances. It can even pinpoint the inception of the problem for us.
ובת איש כהן כי תחל לזנות את אביה היא מחללת באש תשרף “The daughter of a Kohen who started to behave like a harlot – she disgraces her father, she shall be burnt in fire.” (21 – 9) Rashi comments that this girl was engaged or married. She causes disgrace to her father. Because of her, people now say about him “Cursed is he for giving birth to such (a person). Cursed is he who brought up such (a person).” (Rashi learns the word תחל as disgracing herself. This is not the same explanation as that of many other commentators, as brought down by the Ibn Ezra. The word תחל means start, and the word תחלל means disgrace. Rashi did not want to interpret the word as “start”, because this can imply that only if she is at the beginning stage of harlotry can she get punished. And this is not the case. So Rashi, and many others, interprets it to mean disgrace, despite the missing ל. Either way, the passuk in its simple form is sending us a message.) Harlotry at the start of her married life is what causes her father’s name to be disgraced; that puts the blame on him. How and why?
The answer given by the Imrei Shefer is preceded with the words of our Sages. “The way of the Evil Inclination is that today, he tells you do this small sin. Then, tomorrow, he tells you do a different little sin. Finally, he gets you to a level where he tells you- Go and serve idols!”. On the basis of these comments, we can make the following observation: if a child rebels gradually, stage by stage, we can attribute the cause to the child’s evil inclination, not to some deficiency or mistake made by the parents. Gradual changes are usually an expression of the child’s free choice. However, if the unacceptable behavior was something sudden, it was a result of something deeply rooted in the child’s past, dating back to the time and way he was parented.
The fact that the daughter of the Kohen suddenly started to do something so grave as being with another man during her own marriage, without any prior sign of gradual spiritual decline or other examples of extroverted behavior, points the finger of blame at the parents. Had her actions been due to her evil inclination, such behavior would have come about more gradually.
And still, believe it or not, even when the father is pointed at for faulty parenting or for having been a bad example, the Torah holds the daughter of the Kohen responsible for her actions. She is to be burnt, while the parents stand by and watch. I hate these sad endings, but it all points to and exposes the anti – Torah psychological approach that children are not responsible for the way they act if they were brought up with mistakes. The Torah tells us that the child is still responsible.