What will the neighbors say?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 26, 2004
In his commentary on the Al Cheit recited on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler offers a homiletical explanation of "the sin which we committed before you without knowing": "without knowing" refers to the sins committed because one did not take advantage of the lo lishma (ulterior motive) that others might find out about the sin.
Rabbi Dessler’s explanation is based on an explicit Gemara (Berachos 28b):
When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai became very sick, his students came to visit him . . . . They said to him, "Rabbeinu bless us."
He said to them, "May it be His will that the fear of Heaven should be as great for you as the fear of your fellow man."
His students said to him, "Is that all."
He replied, "Halevai [that much]. Know that when a man commits an aveira he says to himself, ‘Just don’t let anyone see me.’"
We see from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s advice to his talmidim how important it is to use the lo lishma of potential embarrassment and humiliation to act properly. When the middos that we display within the home fall far short of the image we try to convey to the outside world, we might, for instance, ask ourselves how we would feel if we knew that the door was open and that all the neighbors could hear our every word. Before we put on tefillin to daven at home in the morning, we should first ask ourselves how we would feel if the next door neighbor popped in to borrow a milk.
Every time I read of a scandal involving a shomer Shabbos Jew, the first question that always pops into my mind is invariably: Didn’t he ever think about the chilul Hashem if he was caught? Didn’t he worry about the impact on his family?
SOCIAL PRESSURE, the fear of what the neighbors will say, obviously has its place, and can be a powerful incentive to act as we know we should. Yet, like most things in life, our fear of what others will say can also be greatly overdone and have very negative consequences. And that is especially true in closed, tightly knit communities such as ours.
In my conversations with educators about why some boys seem to have a very difficult time adjusting to yeshiva ketana, one of the most frequently mentioned factors is fathers who pushed their sons into yeshivot ketanot that were not well-suited to them.
No doubt the fathers convince themselves that they have only the best interests of their son at heart. After all, isn’t one of the questions that shadchanim will ask: Where did he go to yeshiva ketana? And doesn’t it say, "Better to be the tail of the lion than the head of the fox?"
But whether the fathers admit it or not, they are often imitating the behavior of secular American parents who plaster the insignia of the Ivy League schools attended by their children all over their cars. Too frequently our sons pay the cost of this desire to be able to drop into the conversation the name of a certain prestigious yeshiva he attends.
HaRav HaGaon Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt"l, used to say that, "Better the tail of the lion than the head of the fox," is not a principle in education, certainly not at the age of fourteen or fifteen. At that stage of life, it is much more important that a boy develop his self-confidence and the joy of learning that comes from success.
The obsessive concern with shidduchim almost from the moment the newborn infant utters his or her first cry can cloud parents’ ability to think about what their particular child needs educationally. A hapless eight-year-old boy in my neighborhood once made the mistake of carrying his guitar home from a lesson. By the time he reached his home a few blocks away, his grandfather, who lives in another neighborhood half-way across the city, was already on the phone, berating his daughter over her lack of concern for her son’s good name. How did she ever expect her son to make a good shidduch, the irate grandfather demanded to know.
The greatest danger from showing too great concern with what the neighbors will say is that our children may become cynical about the lessons we try to instill and come to question the depth of our own commitment. At the most extreme, if they view us as hypocrites motivated exclusively by social pressures, they will become contemptuous of everything associated with us.
Ideally, the message that our children should be hearing from us is: We act this way because it is the ratzon Hashem. Conveying that message is much harder than just pointing to what everybody else does. It requires us to know halacha well and to ask shaylos from talmidei chachamim who are suited to be ba’alei eitzos for us -- either because they know us well or are willing to give the time necessary to fully understand the issues presented. The more that our children view us as serious thinking people, who are constantly asking ourselves the question, "What does the Ribbono shel Olam want from us?" the more they will respect the lessons which we attempt to instill.
That does not mean that we can or should feel the need to provide our children with an explicit source in Shulchan Aruch for everything that we do or ask them to do. Sometimes we dress in a certain way, for instance, as a means of identification with the Torah world and a statement of pride in being part of that world. That pride is a positive thing. But it must be founded on a firm grasp of the values for which the Torah world stands.
The social controls that work with us will not necessarily work for our children. They have their own peer pressures to which they respond, and those pressures will almost certainly not be the same as our own. That is why teaching them that we act in a certain way because it is right, and making that message credible, offers the best hope, in the long run, that our children will make our values their own. Only when our children know themselves what is right, will they be able to us the lo lishma of "not knowing" to overcome their yetzer hara.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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