Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Anyone who walks on a regular basis has likely, on more than one occasion, been startled by the enraged barking of an angry dog, eyes ablaze with fury, clawing frantically at the fence thankfully separating it from you.

Since I enjoy walking, this “verbal” abuse by a crazed canine would happen often. What is your problem, I would silently mutter at the maniacal mutt, “you decided I’m doing something wrong? That you don’t like something about me, my look, my smell, or you do not fargin my ability to freely go where I want?  Guess what, I don’t need your approval or your permission.

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And I’d walk away ignoring it for being the non-entity it was.

That was my approach as I matured. Actually, when I was younger, I would startle the dog by imitating it, barking and growling, while throwing my weight against the fence! Almost always, the shocked coward would go yelping away, tail between its legs, like most bullies do when challenged.

(To give context to my somewhat atypical reaction to dogs, I want you to know that because my birthday fell weeks after the December 31 cutoff, the principal of the day school my mother wanted me to attend – after completing first grade elsewhere – interviewed me to see if I was intellectually ready to advance to second grade. She asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Without any hesitation, I told her a dog.  Not the answer she expected and she asked me why?  I answered that I liked to run, chew bones – after eating the meat off the drumsticks – and I could bark and then proceeded to give her a convincing rendition of my ability to do so. I guess she was impressed with my logic, because she accepted me into second grade.)

In my mind, people who take offence at you over something trivial; who feel they have a right to give you their unsolicited advice and negative opinion on matters that are none of their business are like barking dogs; unpleasant creatures who should be ignored.

Previously, I wrote about King David, who after bringing food for his brothers and their commanding officer, is verbally berated and emotionally abused by his eldest brother Eliav, who angrily barks at him (Shmuel 17:28), “Why are you coming down, and with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumptuousness, and the naughtiness of your heart, for you came down that you might see the battle.”

As I wrote, Eliav is basically calling his brother a liar, saying that he did not come to deliver food, but was playing “hooky” from his “job.”  His use of the words “few sheep” implies that David is so inept that he is given only a meager flock to look after. Eliav also questions whom David left the sheep with, a question one would ask a person who has a history of being irresponsible.

David, appearing to be stressed and distressed, answers, “What have I now done? Was it not but a word.” (David had asked some soldiers what would be the reward for the man who killed Goliath. This question triggered Eliav’s ire).

Verbal, emotional bullies, like Eliav, put you on the defensive, making you justify what you did, or question your choices and actions, even when you know you did nothing wrong or in fact made positive choices.  David asked a question, and his brother berated him.

Bullies often compensate for uncomfortable feelings of inadequacy by trying to feel superior. To that end they insult and denigrate those whom they feel are “less” than they are.

Conversely, I believe (based on years of observation and my personal experience, since I am not a psychologist) that emotional and verbal abuse will also be directed to someone on a higher level, hence the derision, for example, heaped on the “science nerds” in physics class, or the prettier, more popular sister who is chronically criticized by a jealous sibling.

Unless the targets of chronic verbal and emotional abuse have friends and relatives who provide a crucial counterbalance of positivity, those hapless souls subjected to relentless, long-term denigration internalize the soul-destroying message that they are flawed or defective, resulting in a lifetime of self-doubt, a crippling lack of confidence and, ultimately, their gravitating to toxic, abusive individuals who are not worthy of them, but whose abusive treatment is familiar (note the root word “family”).

There is a saying in Yiddish that the worm living in a jar of sharp horseradish thinks its environment is the norm.  Kids, for example, who are regularly beaten for what is unrealistically viewed as grossly “misbehaving,” will repeat this pattern with their own children – unless someone shows them that this is not the correct way to be.

Sadly, it seems that David HaMelech’s mazal was to have his life undermined by people who I view as being emotionally unhealthy. However, like physical illness, there are different degrees of emotional illness. For example, intense jealousy can manifest itself as being catty, scornful or dismissive – or by physical violence or murder.

An envious Eliav verbally maligned his brother David, but a seething, jealous Cain killed his brother Abel.  Eliav’s emotional “illness” was relatively mild, like a cold virus. Cain’s was more like a toxic carcinoma.

There are very mean, difficult people who cross our paths. I would venture that some may even have a personality disorder. These unfortunate men, women and children can be compared to cancer cells which are normal cells that became abnormal – triggered perhaps by a carcinogenic environmental or genetic defect.  So too, people who have a personality disorder possibly started off as being mentally and emotionally healthy, but due to bad genetics or environmental factors – horrific neglect or physical or emotional abuse as infants/young children – their personality became warped.

David HaMelech suffered greatly from his unreasonably cruel relatives, but with bitachon and emunah he prevailed.

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