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The Sword In The Tongue (Readers Respond)


Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

I’ve received an inordinate amount of mail in response to the letters I published two weeks ago regarding onas devarim – painful and abusive language. It seems this problem is prevalent in many circles, among children as well as adults, indicating this is a societal condition that is unfortunately reflective of our culture.

We live in a time in which sarcasm is an acceptable mode of communication, in which people lack sensitivity for the feelings of others and everything is legitimized as long as it brings on “a good laugh.”

I received letters from wives who wrote that they dread going out socially because their husbands seem to take pleasure in putting them down in front of their friends. The ridicule touches upon many aspects of their lives – their cooking, their appearance, their clumsiness on the tennis court, etc. Bottom line – the remarks are very hurtful and these wives have to take it silently lest they be accused of being “poor sports.” They wrote of the devastating effect this has on their marriages and the tranquility of their homes.

The letters also described the sarcastic jibes and cutting remarks wives make regarding husbands, such as “My husband always looks like a shlump – nothing he puts on ever matches”; “He can’t hold a job”; “He snores so loudly the walls rattle and he wakes up the whole house”; “He never remembers my birthday or our anniversary, but if by some miracle he does, you can be sure he will buy me something tasteless, something I have no use for, and then expect me to thank him profusely”; and on and on.

Parents wrote that their children address them in the most disrespectful and reprehensible manner: “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” “Get off my back!” “It’s none of your business!” and other expressions best not repeated in a Jewish publication. All the parents who wrote seemed to agree that seldom do they hear a kind word or an expression of appreciation – but are instead subjected to a barrage of nasty and inflammatory words.

The complaints did not stop there. Teachers and rabbis also wrote in relating their stories. They too feel assaulted by disrespectful language, and, sadly, the opposite also seems to hold true – it appears that teachers and parents can be equally guilty of resorting to offensive, painful language.

Obviously, meanness and sarcasm have become accepted modes of communication, leaving terrible damage in their wake.

I have summarized all this because I cannot possibly publish the many letters and e-mails that crossed my desk, but I am certain you get the picture. It is time for us to do a good housecleaning and learn to speak as Jews should. I will share one heartbreaking letter that, Baruch Hashem, had a good ending – though I must emphasize such endings are the exception rather than the rule.

Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis,

The letter written by the woman who decried the insensitive and cruel manner of communication that has become the norm in our society touched a very painful chord in my heart. If not for the mercy of Hashem, I could be a basket case today or a nasty, angry person as a result of all the suffering I was subjected to by my school, my schoolmates, and, sadly, even my parents.

As I write this letter, I still feel tormented by the many torturous memories that come to mind. Just the same, despite it all, I felt I should write in the hope that others might benefit from my experiences, re-think their words, and, as you wrote, utilize Hashem’s gift of speech discretely.

You pointed out that the tongue is a mighty sword, and therefore Hashem gave us two gates to protect ourselves from its deadly effects – our teeth and our lips so that we might lock those gates and contemplate whether we should allow our tongues to go loose or we should keep them under lock and key. If we could only learn that discipline, we could save many lives including our own. And now to my story:

I was born into a difficult family. My parents never had shalom bayis. They were always shouting and fighting. Although my father had a good profession, he was never successful and that made my mother very angry. We lived in a good neighborhood and she resented that she couldn’t keep up with her friends, shop where they shopped and do the things they did.

As young as I was, I was impacted by all this. I too felt dowdy next to my friends. When we got together socially, they were dressed in the latest – their mothers took them to the best shops while I wore hand-me-downs from my cousin. I felt them looking at me and whispering behind my back. Admittedly, they never said anything directly to me, but I always felt left out and ignored.

Soon, I became a problem child and began to act out, which resulted in my mother screaming even more and slapping me around. I was tagged a “troubled kid,” but the more abuse that was hurled at me, the more of a problem I became. I stopped studying, my grades dropped, and I was forever in the principal’s office. And then one day, the roof caved in – someone in the class was stealing! The principal called a meeting and asked whoever took the items to return them. He added that he didn’t want to put anyone to shame, so the guilty party should just leave the stolen things on the teacher’s desk.

A few days passed and nothing was returned. Once again, the principal made an appeal, but still, nothing was returned. And then my ordeal began. All eyes were cast upon me! Everyone was positive I was the thief – and my life became a living nightmare. Even now, as I write about it, I feel a need to defend myself and to tell you that while I had a lot to grapple with and I may have been a tough kid, in my life I never stole! But now I was labeled a thief by my classmates and by the school administration.

At home I was subjected to further accusations, shouting, screaming, and name-calling. I wanted to die! In fact, very often I contemplated suicide. Then came a letter from the principal asking my parents to find another school for me. Well, that was another nightmare. No school was willing to accept me because as soon as they investigated my past, they closed the doors, so my parents had no option but to enroll me in a school for troubled children.

I hit bottom. I hung out on the street smoking and drinking – one day was worse than the other. I met a boy who had also gone through a similar experience. We connected and hung out together. Someone in the community – a very good woman – reached out to us and invited us for Shabbos. We spent many Shabbosim in her home and then, one day, she asked that we go with her to your class. To be honest, we were reluctant to go, but she had been so kind to us that we couldn’t refuse her.

As you read these words, I am certain you recall us. I remember the first time we met you and you gave us berachos. No one had ever given us a beracha before. You assured us that if we willed it, these berachos could change our lives, heal our scars, and wipe out the bitter past. To this day, I can hear your voice telling us these berachos came straight from the Torah – from Hashem, from Aaron the Kohen Gadol, from our Avos and Emahos, our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and they have the power to overcome all the craziness of our world. We discovered the many treasures that Hashem gave us and slowly but surely became Torah Jews and decided to get married.

As you know, today we live in a warm Jewish community in New Jersey. We have three wonderful children who go to yeshiva. We would like to come to your classes again, but the distance is too great and we can’t afford baby-sitters, but we never miss watching your classes on the Internet.

I have written this letter because I feel a responsibility to share my story. When I hear of young people falling through the cracks, living shattered broken lives, becoming addicted to the most horrific habits, I say, “Thank You, Hashem, because there, but for Your grace, goes me.”

I hope my story will teach parents, educators, young and old, to be ever so careful with their words because those words can actually destroy a person and the damage they can inflict is incalculable.

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