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The Wrongs Of Onas Devarim


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Dear Dr. Yael:

I am the oldest child in a family of seven; one of my sisters is a year younger than me. Even though we basically have the same responsibilities, somehow I always get stuck with all the household chores. My sister has a tendency to take her time, all the while doing one job. Honestly, sometimes it takes her three hours to do the dishes. She says it is because she is a “schlep.” She actually gets angry with her when I ask her to move quicker, saying that “I am not understanding of her feelings” and “she needs time.”

I think she uses this “schlepping” business as an excuse to get out of doing more chores. I know she can do things quickly. For example, if her friends say they are having a sleepover party, she packs, gets dressed, has the dishes done and is ready to go in 10 minutes flat!

We recently had the entire extended family over for a Chanukah chagigah and as usual, I got stuck doing most of the work. My sister took about an hour to set the table, while I was running around the kitchen with my mother to make sure that everything was ready in time. I want to have a good relationship with my sister, but I find it hard not to be resentful of her. Can you help me?

Frustrated and Overwhelmed

Dear Frustrated and Overwhelmed:

I definitely see how this can be frustrating for you. However, calling your sister names, even ones that she uses to refer to herself (or even thinking this) just intensifies the conflict. Calling her a “schlep” not only adds to her insecurities, it also convinces her that she possesses negative qualities that she seems to not have. It is almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If she is called a “schlep” she may end up acting like one, because that is what is expected of her. Thus, your actions are actually making your sister want to do less.

Think about it this way: if you had a teacher who constantly called you a dummy when you replied incorrectly to a question, would you raise your hand in class to answer the teacher’s questions? Probably not, as you’d think that your answer is wrong and that you are going to look stupid. In addition, you would probably not try to do well in her class. “If the teacher thinks I’m stupid, what’s the use of trying?” is the typical response of most teenagers in that situation. It’s the same with your sister. Since you expect very little from her, she does very little for you. Why should she want to please you if you are calling her names or thinking of her in negative terms?

As the older sister, you can create a relationship with your sister that is based on respect. This will lead her to want to please and emulate you. Tell her that you don’t think that she’ s a “schlep” but rather that she is a very capable. Tell her that you love her and want to have a good relationship with her. Explain to her that because she is so capable, you expect more from her in terms of helping around the house. Make sure that you use a loving and caring voice, devoid of frustration and criticism. This will be the hardest part of your talk with her, but if you stay calm, you will be successful. Most people do not respond well when criticized or spoken to out of anger; thus, your tone will be integral to the success of the conversation.

When your sister helps, show her how you appreciate her effort by complimenting her. This is a good way to deal with people in general. When you treat people nicely, they will want to do more for you. Instead of saying, “Hurry up, you are so slow,” say: “I can see how much effort you are putting into doing the dishes; maybe you can finish up so you can use your creativity to help me prepare tomorrow’s lunches.” Do not say this in a sarcastic or frustrated voice, or it will not have a positive impact. Instead, like I advised earlier, use a sincere, loving and complimentary tone. Also, any time you find a reason to compliment your sister, do so. It is very important for siblings to help build each other’s self-esteem. When people feel capable and have self-worth, they are much more likely to be productive.

We all need to feel appreciated for what we do in life. I am involved in a Friday night Tehillim group whereby we divide the 150 chapters among the members. My friend and neighbor, Devorah Kahn, initiated this group and has been a strong force in encouraging people living on our block to participate in this mitzvah. I decided to add something to the group by presenting a three-minute discourse from Positive Word Power, the book from the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation on onas devarim. I read three paragraphs and summarize one lesson. The group responds with different stories related to the particular issue presented (regarding onas devarim).

This Friday night I read Day 51, page 110 – “The Career Critic.” That lesson talks about a man who makes a joke about his new neighbor’s career. His neighbor, a music teacher in the public school system, teaches string instruments and has a few private yeshiva students that he teaches in the evening. The critical neighbor, Yossi, said with ridicule, “Well, I guess it’s like they say: ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’” Yossi then chuckled at his own witticism, expecting the new neighbor to laugh along with him. After all, everyone knows that teaching is not the highest-paying job. And teaching music? In Yossi’s mind that was simply not a serious job for a grown man. In essence Yossi hurt his neighbor’s feelings, causing onas devarim.

I know that in your situation, you are so frustrated with your sister that you probably feel she is causing you great grief. While this is probably true, in a very subtle manner you are committing a type of onas devarim by making her feel like a schlep – and basically inadequate. Please take my words as constructive criticism and understand that you are in no way similar to Yossi in the aforementioned “Career Critic” story. But the message that you are subtly delivering to your sister is that she is inadequate.

I wish you hatzlachah in this challenging situation!

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