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Toxic Language

Tishrei — and the yom tov pattern returns! Of which pattern am I speaking, you ask?


If we were to identify the main aspects of each of the holidays during this month, generally speaking, and in rather simplistic behavioral terms, the pattern of the night and following day might look something along the lines of: daven (pray), eat, sleep, daven, eat, nap (except for a possible, inadvertent quick doze on the first day of Rosh Hashannah), and perhaps a brief walk-off-the-food stroll/learn/visit. Let us also not forget this year’s calendar — a “three-day Yom Tov” — which means the pattern is repeated a third time. Parenthetically, isn’t it strange how we consistently use the term, “three-day Yom Tov” when, in fact, Shabbos does not coincide with Yom Tov but rather follows or precedes it!

Back to our discussion…The exception to the above order is Yom Kippur which is characterized more by eat, daven, daven, daven, daven, daven, and finally, eat. Now multiply the components of the above paradigm by the four holidays (Rosh Hashannah, Sukkos, Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah), and add to it all the “extras” that abound this time of year. By the time the yomim tovim are over, the sum total for a sizable number of the “balebuste” populace will probably yield a “needed” (at least) two-week vacation from the R & R and spiritual invigoration that this holiday period is meant to instill.

What, specifically, do I mean by the “extras”?

Let’s be honest. Early yomim tovim and an early start of the school year brings with it its own set of angst. Add to it concurrent shopping for school and yom tov, a whole lot of food preparation and cooking, sleepover and/or local guests (that’s seven meals per person, including seudah shlishis), in addition to personality factors, and the stressors add up. In a beguiling way, these stressors do their job: they take their toll, and family harmony along with them. And that is only the beginning!

Household anxiety and tension usually affect communication. Much of the time, harried feelings and impatience bring about toxic language: words spoken by family members (especially parent to child) that are insensitive, hurtful and painful. And, as is often the case, when a child is not following the family’s values and religious path, inevitably, the yom tov household atmosphere carries within it a bomb waiting to explode.

Interestingly, toxic language is not exclusive to the home environment. It lurks in many different venues, one of which is in shul. Within the confines of its walls, while holy words of prayer are uttered by all, there are times that drashos (pulpit speeches) or Divrei Torah evoke painful feelings in those individuals who are contending with profound parenting challenges. Unbeknownst to the speaker, and without any deliberate intention to be hurtful, certain thoughts, phrases or perhaps a single, yet powerful word may be at the source of the toxicity.

Take the word, “shalsheles.” While this Hebrew word translates as “chains,” when speaking of a family’s legacy, contextually, the implication refers to the religious continuity throughout the generations (as in shalsheles of yiddishkeit). In essence, the term represents a connection between grandparent, parent and child.

Before the Yizkor service, when it is customary to speak of the departed, often, the content of the drasha will imply the continuity of the generations by pointing to the successful life of departed family members in terms of viewing their children (i.e. We know the departed was a good person by looking at his family”).

While the above statement may be true for certain family situations, is continuity of the generations exclusively a matter of cause and effect for all families? And if that were truly the case, then facing a struggling child at home is tantamount to facing parental failure. In other words, the parents failed because their child broke the family “shalsheles” and [currently] is not contributing to the preservation of Klal Yisrael.

By the way, toxic language from an external source does not necessarily remain solely “outside.” As is well known, words emanating from external sources usually trigger internal dialogue.

When parents are contending with an elongated period of struggles (i.e., beyond 5-7 years), and they have not yet experienced their child’s return to Yiddishkeit, in many cases, yom tov carries with it a profound degree of loss and pain. For some, the cycle may seem endless, and perhaps hopeless. As a result, it is sometimes easier for parents to listen to their inner voice spewing toxicity, as they “believe” their child will not (or never) return to Yiddishkeit. The reason is not only logical; it is also a coping mechanism. As odd as it may seem, it is probably less painful for such parents to live with the total resignation that their child will not return as opposed to a false sense of optimism caused by repeated disappointments and lost dreams. Unfortunately, though, there is a price to pay for this so-called “controlled” minimalistic pain. Hopeless thoughts are as lethal, if not more deadly, than toxic language forthcoming from others.

So what are parents meant to do when they hear toxic words in shul? As they return home with their negative feelings, how are they supposed to face their child and refrain from resenting him/her, knowing that (currently) s/he has disconnected from the family and national links that constitute Jewish survival? And finally, how can these parents feel consoled?

One helpful strategy which enables us to manage our emotional equilibrium is to provide ourselves with a different perspective on a given subject. Changing a perspective gives new meaning. And with a fresh, positive outlook, the potential exists to turn around an otherwise stressful and painful thought or experience.

The Medrash Tanchuma on Noach cites the verse in Mishlei: “Pri tzadik etz chaim v’lokeach nefashos chochom – The fruit of a righteous man is the Tree of Life, and the wise man acquires souls(11:30).” Rabbi Yehuda says that when a person leaves this world without children, he is distressed, and he cries. In response to the person’s anguish, Hashem says, “Why are you crying; is it because you did not leave any children in the world (olam hazeh)? Why, you have better fruits than (physical) children!” Curiously, the person asks: “What are they?” And Hashem answers: “The maasim tovim (good deeds) you did is what you left over in this world.”

By the way, if you find you are perplexed with the above response, indeed, you are in good company. The Etz Yosef (commentary) is also puzzled, evident in his question: “How can one equate leaving over good deeds in this world with leaving over children; and how is that a consolation?” Then again, the Etz Yosef resolves his difficulty by making the following two points. The first thought focuses both on one’s efforts as well as the outcome [of those efforts]. He explains that with every mitzvah one does, one creates a malach (angel). And the second point he shares stresses an interesting, yet perhaps strange fact: that the main children one brings into this world are not physical but rather the spiritual children one creates by engaging in good deeds.

On a different note…The Chofetz Chaim zt”l, in a conversation with his student, Horav Moshe Schneider, z”l,, expressed concern over the spiritual future of his unmarried, young children. At the time, he was quite old, having married a second time following the loss of his first wife. He feared that he was coming to the end of his days, and he questioned himself: “Who will educate my children after I am gone?” He, then, answered his own question: “It really is not a concern, for success with our children is dependent entirely upon S’yata D’shmaya (Hashem’s help). It is for us that we work so hard, so that when we come to the Olam HaEmes (Next World), we can honestly say that we tried everything we possibly could to help our children as much as we knew how.” *

May the above perspectives help inspire, encourage and strengthen those who require support during this period. And may we all be inscribed for a healthy and peaceful year, complete with Hashem’s healing and salvation.

* Artscroll. The Fifth Commandment. By Rabbi Moshe Lieber. Pg. 42

Debbie Brown is a certified life coach specializing in parent coaching, and is an NLP Master Practitioner. She is available for private, confidential phone coaching sessions as well as lectures and group workshops. For further information or to express feelings regarding the Parental Perspective topic, Debbie may be contacted at


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