Special Note: For the past two weeks, my columns have focused on ways and means to establish shalom bayis in our homes and our families. The following is the third installment of this series.
Peace is a most precious gift. Our sages teach that in its absence all our attainments are of no avail. If we do not have shalom, we have nothing and how well those who lack it know this. Even the most magnificent palace, even enormous wealth, cannot compensate for turmoil, animosity and abuse. Sadly, our generation is plagued by conflict and contention…. contention between husband and wife, contention between the generations, and contention in families and communities. All this despite a plethora of self-help programs including therapy, vast amounts of literature and programs dedicated to the subject. Can it be that there is something in our value system that contributes toward splintered relationships and fragmented families?
There is a saying In Yiddish, “Azoy vee es…. ” the way the non-Jewish world goes, so goes the Jewish world.” So let us, if ever so briefly, examine some of the most popular adages of our culture and determine whether they are in consonance with our Torah way of life.
1) “It’s my life ” I owe it to myself. It’s time for me to be selfish.” People bent upon breaking up their families often try to justify their actions with such rationalizations, but is this the Torah outlook? Is it really your life? Does the Torah endorse selfishness? These are popular adages that people parrot and have accepted as non-debatable truths, but do they conform to our Torah way of life?
Very often, when people tell me, “It’s my life,” I challenge them with “Really? What part of your life did you create? Your eyes? Your ears? Which organ? Which limb? Moreover, did you will yourself to be born? Did you choose to be a child of the family that gave you life, or was it all the Hand of G-d?”
Our lives are gifts from Hashem for which we are eternally indebted to Him. Consequently we have a responsibility to safeguard and justify the gift of life that He gave us. In keeping with this idea, just before the conclusion of our prayers, we pronounce a most poignant prayer: “Please G-d, grant that I should not have labored in vain, and that I should not have been born for naught.”
No, our lives are not our own to do with as we wish. Our souls, our very bodies were given to us by our Creator to fulfill the special purpose for which He created us. So next time someone tells you “It’s my life, don’t just sit by silently, but remind him that one day he will have to give an accounting, not just of every day that G-d granted him, but of every minute… even every second, that he spent on this earth. So when, G-d forbid, someone abuses his/her family, it’s not one’s personal business. Rather, it is the business of the entire family and more -the entire nation, for with every splintered family, the fabric of the nation is weakened.
2) Scapegoating “It wasn’t my fault…. I’m just a victim”is yet another rationalization that people use to justify their aberrations and betrayals. There is nothing novel about this rationale. It is as old as man himself.
Adam, the first man, invoked the ire of G-d when he responded to G-d’s question of Ayeka – Where are you?” – that can also be read as “Eichah ” How?” (How did you do this?), with the infamous words: HaIshah – the woman that you gave me… she made me do it.” Thus, he was the first to shirk responsibility and scapegoat. The woman followed suit and pointed her finger at the nachash – the serpent. Both of their responses were unacceptable to Hashem. The Torah demands that, instead of accusing others for our shortcomings, we confront ourselves in all honesty, accept responsibility for our deeds, and make amends. Shifting blame gives license to continue the same hostile, sick behavior. On the other hand, confronting ourselves in truth and accepting responsibility for our deeds, is the path to teshuvah, which leads to new life, renewed commitment, and the fulfillment of our mission.
3) “Why? Why me? Life is unfair…what’s the use of it all?” Such “Why’s” can only lead to cynicism, bitterness, anger, or self-pity and depression. Instead of asking “Why?” I urge people to pose the same question in Lashon HaKodesh ” the holy tongue, for in Lashon HaKodesh, every word is definitive. Thus, while “why” evokes frustration, madua – the Hebrew version, leads to growth and development, for madua can be heard as, mah dei’ah – What can I learn from this? What wisdom can I glean from this?” or Lamah – l’ mah? To what end is this happening? How do I grow and become wiser and more mature from this?
Thus, the Torah teaches us to look upon our challenges and difficulties as opportunities for growth rather than as cause for cynicism and self-pity.
I recall a young couple coming to see me. She was determined to get a divorce while he was bent on saving the marriage. I asked to speak to her privately. Give me specifics,” I said.
Upon closer scrutiny, everything that she brought up turned out to be a non-issue certainly no reason for so drastic a step as divorce. I pointed out to her that when couples divorce, in the Beit HaMikdash of the Heavens above, the Mizbe’ach – the Altar, weeps.
Why the Mizbe’ach? Why not the Menorah or some other sacred item? The answer, our sages teach, is that the Altar weeps as if to say, “If only they had tried a little more…If only they had made a little more sacrifice.”
After offering further arguments, none of which showed justification for a divorce, she finally blurted out that her love had dried up and she no longer had feelings for him. I’m still young,” she said, “and there is no reason for me to stay in a loveless marriage.
I told her that in Lashon HaKodesh, the word love ” ahavah comes from the root “hav” to give. Has it ever occurred to you,” I asked, that the reason why your love dried up is because you stopped giving? Take your cue from nature,” I advised, “When a nursing mother stops nursing, her milk dries up. And this is valid in every area. Start giving again, and your love will return.”
4. “I am entitled! You owe it to me.” We have created a “me” entitlement generation, best expressed in Yiddish with “Es kumt mir” It’s coming to me.” We are short on sacrifice but long on demand. We know how to take, but we don’t know how to give. We are all wrapped up in our own needs and fail to see the needs of others. We know how to cry for ourselves, but we are not good at crying for others. People who are in conflict never want to consider how destructive their actions are or the permanent scars their deeds will leave on those nearest and dearest. They parrot the popular catch phrases, “I owe it to myself” It’s my time to be selfish… It’s not my fault. The time has come for me to be good to myself,” never realizing that no man is an island unto himself and if he hurts others, it is not only his family and community that will suffer ” it is he who will suffer the most.
As we prepare for Kabbalat HaTorah, it’s time for all of us to return to the well-trodden, trusted path of our ancestors “the path of Torah” the path of Shalom.