There’s a popular adage that tells us not to sweat the small stuff. I always thought that it meant we should not make an issue out of insignificant incidents that impinge on our kavod. When we are victims, we should categorize all this as “small stuff” and the best way to deal with it is to forgive, forget and move on.
Our sages teach us, “Everyone who overlooks and forgives his kavod will have his sins forgiven.” In our society however, it’s the reverse. When we are the victims who suffer a slight, we are quick to protest, declare our outrage, and indignantly refuse to forgive or forget. But if we inflict the hurt and are guilty, we wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, it’s all “small stuff” – why is everyone getting into a sweat? So we dismiss it all with a wave of the hand.
I bring this to your attention now because the Yamim Noraim are soon approaching – a season that demands that we do teshuvah, examine our lives, reconnect with Hashem, His Torah, and His mitzvos. This self-scrutiny requires that we evaluate our character traits and the manner in which we communicate with our fellow man – especially those who are nearest and dearest to us, for it is there that we tend to be most negligent. We are the generation of Ikvesa D’Moshicha – the generation that is destined to precede the coming of Messiah, when chutzpah will abound and the young will rise against their elders. This chutzpah will be so prevalent that often, we will not even be aware of it.
A mother and her teenage daughter came to consult me about a situation that was creating conflict at home.
“Would you like to tell me about the problem?” I asked, as they made themselves comfortable in my office.
“Problem?” the teenager repeated sarcastically. “I have no problem; it is ‘she’ who is making the problem.”
“Who is ‘she’?” I asked, pretending that I did not understand.
“She,” the girl insisted, pointing in her mother’s direction.
So again I asked, “Who is she?”
This interplay went on for quite a few minutes, with the girl stubbornly refusing to utter the word “mother,” and I, refusing to give credence to “she.” Finally, she grudgingly conceded, “Okay, my mother,” but even as she did so, she flippantly added, “Rebbetzin, I don’t know what you’re making all this fuss about. She/he, mother/ father, it’s all the same. I think you’re making a whole big hullabaloo about nothing!” And then, to add insult to injury, chutzpah to chutzpah, she muttered under her breath, “This is the craziest thing … wasting all this time on such nonsense!”
“What did you say?” I asked.
“Nothing, nothing. Let’s just finish…it doesn’t mater.”
“But it does matter,” I insisted. “It matters a lot. We can’t address your issues without first rectifying this grievous wrong.”
“I can’t believe this!” she responded sarcastically. It’s a grievous wrong to say ‘she?'”
“Yes,” I answered, “if that ‘she’ is a reference to your mother.”
“This is really sweating over small stuff,” she muttered, under her breath.
“What you consider ‘small stuff,’ I told her, “is a violation of the Fifth Commandment.”
“Give me a break! Everyone I know refers to their mothers as ‘she.'”
“But we are not everyone,” I told her. “We are Jews who stood at Sinai and have an imperative to live by the Law of G-d, and one of the basic tenets of our faith is to respect and honor our parents.”
“What does saying ‘she’ have to do with anything?” the girl continued to argue.
“Everything,” I said. “‘She’ is not a respectful way of speaking about a parent. ‘She’ is anonymous; ‘she’ can mean anyone. Your mother is not a ‘she.’ It is not a ‘she’ who gave life to you, cared for you and nurtured you. It is not a ‘she’ who agonized and continues to agonize over you. And it is not a ‘she,’ who is sitting next you, crying.
Just look and see the tears your mother is shedding. Tears like that cannot be shed by a ‘she.’ They emanate from the broken heart of a mother who loves her child more than life. …a mother who has no peace knowing that her child is troubled. No, such a person is not a ‘she’!”
For the first time, the girl was silent, but I wouldn’t let go. “I also heard you mumbling under your breath,” I told her, “that I was wasting your time! Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps the opposite may be true…. that you are wasting my time? But your chutzpadik feelings of entitlement have blinded you so that you see no one but yourself.
“If your eyes were open you would realize that there are many people waiting to see me this evening, and you would apologize for taking so much of my time. You would be humbled by the awareness that after our talk, you will be going home, while I will remain here until I see every individual. And yet, you dare to say that I am wasting your time. Never mind that I’m a little bit older than you. Never mind that common decency would dictate that you say thank you a thousand times.
“So why, you may wonder, am I doing this?” I challenged. “We are a people who sealed a covenant at Mt. Sinai and honoring parents is the root of all our relationships. The manner in which we relate to our parents will color all our interactions, so if you do not understand the difference between ‘she’ and ‘my mother,’ then you don’t comprehend the basics of derech eretz. Without derech eretz,” I told her, “you will never know how to live by that covenant. You will never know shalom bayis – a good marriage, and worse, your own children will suffer the consequences, for your chutzpah will define their lives.
We spoke a while longer, and she finally did listen, although I sensed that she still had a belligerent attitude. I got up from behind my desk and reached out to her, but even as I did so, I felt her resistance. Nevertheless, I enveloped her in my arms, gave her a brachah with a kiss, and said, “Now let’s start all over again,” and for the first time I saw tears in her eyes that told me that her Yiddisheh neshamah had awakened. And so it was that Baruch Hashem, we did start all over again.
To be sure, I could have avoided this entire confrontation and ignored her insistence on referring to her mother as “she.” Through bitter tears, her mother confided that “she” was a good word compared to some other terms her daughter used. Her mother also admitted that for a moment, she was nervous, wondering whether I had been too strict, making too much of “small stuff” rather than focusing on the major issues.
So I explained that it all starts with “small stuff,” which, if allowed to go unchecked, can poison all relationships. If a parent becomes just an object, then children will have license to say or do anything they wish. Children do not feel duty-bound to honor a “he” or a “she.” But when it is “my mother” or “my father” – it’s an entirely different story. In short, a breach of derech eretz leads to escalation of chutzpah, which leads to family breakdown.
Let us examine our relationships and pay special attention to areas that we consider “small stuff,” for we might just discover that “small stuff” is not so small after all.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis