The other day I noticed a therapist friend of mine, looking a bit down. I know that my friend hears a lot of misery in the course of a day, but the pain of his clients does not usually appear on his face. I asked what was the matter, and he told me that he had just come from a counseling session in which a young boy had broken down while describing the bullying to which he is daily subjected in cheder.
Now, it was my turn to be dismayed. Something struck me as terribly wrong. I understand that children will get into fights from time to time, or not always daven with great seriousness (or with mock seriousness and fake gyrations), and the like. But what I could not comprehend is how a child raised in a Torah home could deliberately set out day after day to inflict pain on another child. When I put this question to a number of my friends, they just stared at me in astonishment at my naivete. Every problem that exists in general society also exists in the Torah world, they all assured me. That's the way it is.
As an empirical matter, they are probably right. But I still could not make peace with it. There are certain behaviors that are so antithetical to a Torah weltanshaung that when they appear, not as isolated instances but as a social phenomenon, we should rend our garments. And bullying – particularly verbal bullying – I discovered is not confined to isolated cases, or limited to boys. In fact, it has its own terminology, like malkat hakitah (queen of the class).
Bullying represents a twofold educational failure. The first is the failure to instill in our children empathy for the suffering of others. The Torah enjoins us repeatedly not to oppress the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt – in other words, to use our own suffering to feel that of others. The bully who causes another pain has lost that ability to empathize. Good literature, like the stories of Chaim Walder, is one of the best ways of developing that empathy.
But there is another more subtle failure involved as well. It relates not to those who initiate the bullying -- a relatively small number -- but to the much larger number of those who observe and go along with it, often times out of fear that if they object, the bullies will turn on them as well. Successful parenting means giving our children the resources to recognize what is right and act accordingly, even when that means going against the stream. "We cannot ensure that our children inherit all our values," a wise talmid chacham told me recently, "but at the very least, we can strive to instill in them a strong sense of right and wrong, and that one must do what is right."
David Reisman's The Lonely Crowd was one of the classics of 1950s American sociology. Reisman draws the distinction between "other-directed" people, whose behavior is primarily affected by the opinions of others, and "inner-directed people," whose behavior is primarily a reflection of their own internal values. Even in 1950, "outer-directed" people were the large majority. (I was fortunate to be raised by parents of the older school. My brothers and I discovered early in life that the surest way to receive a firm and irrevocable "no" from our parents was to tell them that someone else's parents permitted some activity or another.)
A mesorah-based Torah society is based on shared values, not each person doing what is good in his own eyes. Yet we should never confuse the opinion of our neighbors, or even every societal norm, with what the Torah seeks from us. As parents, that requires nurturing in our children a strong sense of right and wrong, not just a sensitivity to public opinion. When our children are accomplices in bullying, either by laughing at verbal abuse, or even by observing without protest, we have failed as parents.
I once heard from Rabbi Nosson Scherman something the late Kopyzcznitzer Rebbe told his granddaughter as she was entering seminary, which can serve as a guide to each of us as to the empathy we should seek to instill in our children. "You are a talented girl, a pretty girl, a meyuchasdike girl – everybody will want to be your friend," said the Rebbe. "But your task is to befriend all those girls whom not everyone wants to be their friend."
After a recent speech on chinuch banim (child-rearing) in Lawrence, someone approached me and asked, "Your children are all matzliach, all in learning?" I suppose I could have let slide the implied assumption of the question – success is exclusively determined by whether, and how long, one stays in learning. But I decided not to.
"Yes, Baruch Hashem, my children are successful," I told him. "But I do not view my son who learns in kollel in the morning and repairs major appliances afternoons and evenings as any less successful." My response probably took my questioner aback a moment, but I was still not done: "True, this son will probably not be as big a talmid chacham as his brothers. But I do not see him as less of an eved Hashem – not in the way he davens or his dikduk in mitzvos. And I can always count on him to say a dvar Torah at the Shabbos table."
I was still not done enumerating the reasons I'm so proud of this particular son. Chief among them is the way he took responsibility when it became clear that the money was simply not there to put food on the table. He did not whine or bemoan his fate; he went out and acquired a skill with which he could support his family. Now, he can even aspire to one of the Gemara's definitions of a full adult – i.e., one who is not dependent on his parents for support.
I'm also delighted to see the satisfaction Yechezkel derives from what he is doing. Yes, there can be as much satisfaction in fixing machines, or plumbing, or electrical work, as in crafting an essay, perhaps more. Both involve forms of problem solving, and as one gains experience one is able to solve increasingly difficult and diverse types of problems. But with the manual labor, there is the added bonus of providing instant benefit to someone and being able to see the beneficiary of one's labors.
When one fixes the washing machine of a frantic mother whose eight kids have nothing to wear or the dryer during prolonged winter rain storms, the gratitude of the owner of the machine is an added bonus to the payment received. An honest exchange has taken place. It's not like trading futures, or various forms of financial manipulation, which while potentially far more lucrative, offer no satisfaction apart from the money earned.
And finally, there are the lessons learned that are applicable for every aspect of life. Yechezkel tells me that a number of times, he was close to giving up on a particular machine, when he decided to try one more time or rethink the problem, and that extra effort resulted in a solution.
Most fundamental of all are the lessons in bitachon that anyone in business must learn. No matter how skilled one becomes, one cannot determine how many major appliances will go on the blink in a given week or how many owners of such machines will happen to have the particular flyer in which you advertised at hand.
When the riots in Egypt first began, I wrote in another publication that one hopeful outgrowth of the challenges to autocrats all across the Muslim world is that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt could also happen in Iran. That, unfortunately, is only half right.
True, the first major demonstrations since 2009 have now taken place in Iran, and these were certainly inspired by events in Egypt. But it will be a lot harder to bring down the Iranian regime than it was to bring down Mubarak or the late Shah of Iran for that matter. The Egyptian military had no great desire to inflict large numbers of casualties to intimidate demonstrators. Dispatching Mubarak proved to be the easier path to preserving its rule.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards, however, will have no such compunctions about killing tens of thousands of Iranian citizens with full religious sanction. The Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, once proclaimed, "Revolt against G-d's government is a revolt against G-d. Revolt against G-d is blasphemy." He did not need to add that the penalty for blasphemy is death.
Khomeini sent tens of thousands of child soldiers to their deaths as minesweepers in the war against Iraq, literally armed only with martyrs keys to heaven. If that is how the regime treated innocent children, it will not show greater mercy to those it defines as enemies. Over the last year, during a period of quiet, the regime has been hanging on average three people a day.
The late Jeanne Kirkpatrick argued already in a famous 1979 Commentary article, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," that autocrats, like Mubarak, are much more vulnerable to popular revolt than leaders of totalitarian states, who view the world as a cosmic struggle between good and evil. The latter are capable of far greater brutality, and brutality works. (Note that there have not yet been any reports of demonstrations in Syria, where memories of how the current ruler's father leveled the city of Hama in 1982, killing at least 20,000, are still strong.) Sadly, the streets of Iran will run red with blood before demonstrations will bring down the government, and the demonstrators will require much more from the West than mere verbal support.