In order for you, dear reader, to be holding this issue of Mishpacha in hand immediately after Succos, the magazine had to be at the printer more than two weeks ago, and all articles and columns submitted even earlier. The possibility of commenting on current events thus obviated, I will indulge myself in the opportunity for a few meandering observations.
My wife and I recently became grandparents for the first time. Fear not, I have no intention of offering any reflections on this new status. My confidence in my inability to say anything halfway fresh, remotely useful, or even vaguely amusing on this subject is near absolute. I understand that this business of grandparenthood has been going on for some time before us. Thus I mention this fact only as background.
Shortly after our grandson's arrival, I sent out an Email to the mailing list for my columns announcing the birth, and sharing our dilemma as to whether we were henceforth to be known as Zaide and Bobbe or Saba and Savta. (My own thoughts on the subject were colored by the fact that my only previous contact with anyone named Bobbe was confined to two very tiny and very old women viewed in my parents' wedding album.)
To my surprise, close to two hundred recipients of that Email responded. Most contented themselves with Mazel Tov wishes, but quite a few offered their own perspectives on being grandparents or weighed in, occasionally vociferously, on the Savta/Bobbe issue. The majority were friends or acquaintances, but a surprisingly large number were complete strangers who had signed up to receive my columns.
I confess that I found these responses – even the briefest – quite moving. Those from strangers, in particular, got me thinking about the power of the written word. Those strangers who took the time to share in our simcha felt connected to me for no other reason than that they have been reading my pieces for some time.
That, in turn, caused me to reflection what a tragedy it is that we do not do more to develop our childrens' ability to express themselves articulately in speech and writing. By virtue of that failure, we deny our children an inestimable power – the power to influence or move others or to simply connect to far more people than we could ever meet personally.
For a gifted few, the ability to write or speak comes naturally, without any formal training. The remarkable clarity of the Steipoler Gaon's, zt"l, works had nothing to do any formal training in writing, and I doubt that Rabbi Israel Meir Lau's oratorical abilities were developed in high school debate club.
But for most of us, the ability to form a sentence, structure a paragraph, or to find the proper linear progression with which to explain a complex idea must develop over time and with much practice. Intelligence is not enough. Too often I have cringed when listening to someone describing himself as a student at this or that prominent yeshiva trying to express himself on a radio call-in show or to a nearby reporter. Yet put these same students to unraveling a complex K'tzos HaChoshen and they often demonstrate razor-sharp analytical abilities.
Not everyone can become an elegant writer or speaker. But with work and training everyone can develop into a better writer and speaker. And by doing so, they are guaranteed to enrich their lives in innumerable ways.
Developing effective communications skills need not be at the expense of Torah learning. When students would tell Rabbi Chaim Brisker, zt"l, that they could not adequately express a certain complex thought, he was wont to reply that until an idea can be expressed it does not exist at all. Learning to communicate effectively is, at least in part, learning to think clearly.
A number of years ago, an article in The Jewish Observer described a writing program developed in the high school of the Novominsk Yeshiva in Boro Park. Almost all the required writing in the program dealt with kodesh subjects. One can also learn how to express oneself clearly and logically presenting chaburos in Talmud. My own guess is that a greater insistence on preparing and delivering chaburos, which are then critiqued by a talmid chacham, would do much to boost the already high level of yeshiva learning.
SPEAKING OF CLEAR THINKING, have you ever noticed how many absurd arguments are not only advanced frequently and with the utmost seriousness, but even accepted. A recent news item concerning an appeal from a criminal sentence (no, I don't mean an egregiously written badly written one) brought this to mind. The defendant was convicted of killing his mother in a fit of rage and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He appealed the "harshness" of the sentence on the grounds that he suffers from outbursts of uncontrollable anger.
It strikes me that a tendency to uncontrollable rage rather than being a mitigating factor, as the defendant's attorney thought, presumably based on existing judicial precedents, is in fact a powerful argument for doubling the convicted man's sentence. The purpose of criminal punishment is not only communal retribution, but also to deter others who might be inclined to commit similar crimes, and to remove the danger posed to society by the wrongdoer.
In the case in question, the very factor cited to reduce the murderer's moral culpability made his likelihood of killing again that much greater. What would the judge have to say to a second victim?: "We let him out early because we knew he was subject to murderous rage." Could there be a greater example of misplaced mercy resulting in misplaced cruelty?
I know that there were a few other insights that I wanted to take this opportunity to share. But I forgot what they were. Perhaps I am old enough to be a Zaide after all.