No More Pinnys
I don't know anyone who can mine is own life experiences to extract lessons of general applicability in the same way as my friend Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman of Passaic. In one of his recent daily "Short Vorts", he told the story of Pinny, a physically awkward, socially ostracized young boy.
For his 12th birthday, Pinny's mother purchased a gooey, seven-layered cake. The family could eat little of the cake, and Pinny decided that he would bring it to school to share with his classmates. Pinny spent the entire walk to school in delicious contemplation of how his generosity would win the friendship of his classmates he had always craved.
Alas, it did not work out that way. Pinny's classmates took one look at the cake and accused Pinny of bringing them leftovers. Distraught by that reaction, Pinny decided that he would at least take one piece to his principal. But the principal was not in his office.
When Pinny returned to the classroom, he was horrified to find his classmates engaged in a food fight with his birthday cake. That did bring the principal. In response to the principal's demand for an explanation, the class said it was all Pinny's fault, as he had selfishly taken his cake to eat by himself. Pinny dissolved in tears, unable to defend or explain himself.
In a subsequent Short Vort, Rabbi Eisenman related how many "Pinnys" and parents of "Pinnys" had shared their own memory of similar pain.
THERE IS SO MUCH suffering in the world that we lack the power to rectify directly. Children are stricken with life-threatening diseases, parents divorce, fathers and mothers lose jobs, hurricanes sweep away homes. But why should any Jewish child ever suffer because of the thoughtless cruelty of other Jewish children?
The main lesson that I took away from Pinny's story was that one of our primary goals as Jewish parents should be that our children not inflict pain on others. I'm not talking about the occasional playground fight, but rather about sustained tormenting of one child or group of children by their classmates.
Just as generations of German Jewish parents raised their children so that any containing the faintest trace of dishonesty or theft was literally unthinkable, we should seek to raise our children not only to avoid inflicting pain, but also to be the ones who befriend those who are left out.
The late Kopycznitzer Rebbe, zt"l, told his granddaughter when she was beginning high school, "You are a bright girl, you are a pretty girl, you are a meyucheses. Everybody will want to be your friend. Your task is to be the friend of all the girls who not everybody wants to be their friend." That is a message we can all give our children.
But for that message to be heard, we must first help our children develop empathy – the ability to put themselves in someone else's place and feel their pain. Good literature teaches us how to see the world through others eyes. The stories of Chaim Walder or of Mishpacha's own Dov Haller offer the types of insights into human character that sensitize the reader, whether young or old.
I recently came across a powerful example of how a parent can instill empathy in a beautiful tribute written by Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva of Greater Washington, about his father, Rabbi Ben-Zion Lopiansky, the long-time shammes of the Bialystoker Shul on the Lower East Side.
When Reb Aaron was nine or ten, a homeless man took up residence in the furnace room of the shul. The little boys in the shul, Aaron included, delighted in arousing his ire so that he would chase after them futilely. One day Aaron's father saw what he was doing.
He called Aaron over to him, and began speaking to him softly in a warm tone. "You see this man?" he asked, nodding toward the vagabond. "He was once a cute little baby, whose mother stroked him. She cooed to him and was delighted when he cooed back and smiled at her. His father had hopes that one day he would achieve all the things he never had. His brothers and sisters played and fought with him."
"Now look at what has become of him. Is it not a tragedy? Should we not be moved to tears? And you are compounding this tragedy by a taking a Tzelem Elokim and treating him like dirt." His tone as he finished was even softer than when he began. Tears of pity for the poor man mixed with tears of shame and guilt for his callousness flowed freely down his son's face.
The lesson that his father had taught would last a lifetime: See others as they see themselves. I suspect that such a father taught that quality of empathy in many ways over the years. But I can attest that the impact was very great. Whenever I talk to Rabbi Lopiansky about any dispute, whether current or historical, he almost invariably explains how each party viewed the matter in a way that does justice to both sides and makes one sympathetic to both.
My own mother had a zero tolerance policy for inflicting pain. Within the home, teasing was generally tolerated – in retrospect, perhaps too tolerated. But if my mother was driving a carpool, and she heard one of us tease another child in the carpool, she would immediately stop the car and make us walk to school. That kind of lesson sticks.
Last January Torah Umesorah sponsored together with the Chafetz Chaim Foundation a convention for 200 principals on creating a classroom environment, based on the Torah's teachings about bein adam l'chavero, in which every child can feel safe and valued. The topic is on the agenda of our mechanchim. It needs to be on every parent's agenda as well.
Gaza as Metaphor
It is too early to assess the outcome of the just ended Operation Pillar of Defense. For one thing, we do not know whether the ceasefire will hold or for how long. Nor do we know what commitments were made by the Americans to Israel in return for not embarking on a full-scale ground operation. Nor do we know what undertakings, if any, were made by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government to interdict the smuggling of additional Fajr-5 missiles and weaponry into the Gaza Strip.
But it is not too early to assess the strategic consequences of Israel's 2005 evacuation from Gaza. The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens wrote a powerful mea culpa last week for his earlier support, for then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan.
Though the arguments for withdrawal raised by Stephens and others at the time were not self-evidently wrong, there is little gainsaying Stephens' current assessment. "Israel's withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect."
At the time of the withdrawal, Prime Minister Sharon insisted that if rocket fire continued from Gaza, Israel would strike back with full force. It is doubtful, however, that even such a tough warrior as Sharon would have acted on that threat had he not been felled by a stroke. First, any major military operation against Gazan terrorists would have been a de facto admission that critics of the withdrawal were right when they charged that Gaza would become a terrorist haven.
Second, the withdrawal was largely designed to curry international favor. At each juncture, the question would have been asked: Is the situation so unbearable that it merits sacrificing all the goodwill which Israel supposedly gained by withdrawing from Gaza? And the almost inevitable answer, barring a rocket hit on a school or hospital, would always have been no.
Rockets fired from Gaza increased from 281 in 2004, the last full year of an Israeli security presence, to 1,777 in 2006. Four or five crude but lethal rockets a day fired at civilian residents of the southern Negev town of Sderot came to be seen as a normal part of life. Seventy-five per cent of the children in Sderot suffered from post-trauma stress; families regularly slept together in their basements. And so rocket fire at civilians that no country in the world would have tolerated became a regular part of life for the Jews of Sderot.
Once Israel accepted the new norm – one which no country in the world would have tolerated -- the rest of the world gladly followed suit. So that when Israeli patience finally wore thin in December 2008, with the launch of Operation Cast Lead, Israel was almost universally portrayed as the aggressor and condemned for having broken the status quo.
What happened with respect to rocket fire from Gaza – the intolerable becoming the norm -- is a perfect replication of how Chazal describe the workings of the yetzer hara. The first time we sin, we experience guilt. The second time, not so much. And by the third time, the sin becomes in our eyes a mitzvah – a normal part of life.
IT IS UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED THAT the just concluded operation in Gaza will not be the last. We have relearned the lesson of the Second Lebanon War: Even overwhelming air power is insufficient to fully suppress missile fire. In Lebanon, the Israeli government blustered for a full month threatening a ground invasion of southern Lebanon. None ever came, until the U.N. Security Council was already convened to vote upon a ceasefire resolution, and even then only to save the face of the Olmert government – at the cost of more than thirty Jewish lives.
Again last week, the government repeatedly threatened to launch a ground operation if the Gazan missile fire did not stop. But the longer Israel waited the more international pressure mounted against such an operation. The ground operation never came and the missile fire never stopped, ensuring that Israel and Hamas will fight it out another day, on terms more favorable to Hamas.
Lesson two: When you go to fight the yetzer, once you have determined your strategy, act immediately. Delay is fatal.