In memory of Reuven ben Sarah
A Generation of Victims
1. Depression and Responsibility
2. The Lethal Avalanche
3. The Torah’s Approach to Psychology
4. The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back
5. Responsible or Excusable?
6. Self-Esteem Is Not For Sale
Depression and Responsibility
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!
The Lethal Avalanche
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 cute little perfect 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 then 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.
The Torah’s Approach to Psychology
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 Reed 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 passer-bys, including unfamiliar men. Bat Divri: she was always blabbering, 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 only 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 drummed into us. Indeed, it 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 is never doomed as 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: let us figure out together ways to improve 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 rather than merely feeling good about oneself. In religious terms, it has an even deeper meaning. It means to believe in the Creator who made us with limitations that we are expected to overcome to the 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 was 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 is 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’t ever really “give” someone lasting self-esteem. A person has to gain a belief in himself which 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. One expert in this field commented: “I have yet to see a teenager on drugs who plays and enjoys sports.”
Taking this a step further, it is no wonder that many orphans, poor children, and children from broken homes and others who didn’t have anyone to be dependent on somehow succeed in “the game of life.” From early on, they are handed the ball and have to face the world with all of its challenges.
The concept we have been discussing applies not only on a parenting level, but on a personal level as well. A person may feel inspired to pick up the “ball of responsibility” and run for success. This courageous person who would like to grow and change should be aware of his two great enemies: changing too radically or too quickly. If he falls into one (or both) of these traps, he will likely find himself back where he started: accepting himself at a level he is not happy with.
In memory of Reuven ben Sarah
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