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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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Parshas Metzora

Discussions With Children and Teenagers

"And if she shall become clean from her impurity [zovoh], then she shall count seven days, and after that she shall be pure [tehora]."
(VAYIKRA 15:28)

The Rabbi of Dvinsk was the famous Rabbi Meir Simchah, zt"l. During his time the famous Rabbi of Kovna, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, passed away. Rabbi Meir Simchah's student traveled to the funeral, but Rabbi Meir Simchah did not go.

Upon the student's return, Rabbi Meir Simchah asked him to describe the funeral and to tell him who had eulogized him. Rabbi Meir Simchah also asked if a certain maggid was among those who spoke at the funeral. The student replied, "It is interesting that you ask, since a strange thing happened to that maggid."

The eulogies began in the Great Synagogue of Kovna. After the eulogy given by the deceased Rabbi's son, it was the maggid's turn to speak. Because the synagogue was so crowded with mourners, many people were standing outside and were unable to hear the eulogies. Therefore when it was the maggid's turn to speak, since he was very well known and because of his great popularity, the leaders of the community arranged for him to speak outside.

A temporary podium was erected outside the synagogue to accommodate the maggid. It was made from a table resting on another table, and the maggid climbed up and sat on a chair on it in order to begin speaking. However, before he could utter a word, someone accidentally pushed the table and he fell from his chair to the ground, injuring his head. He was unable to give his eulogy.

"That is why I asked about him, for I knew that he would not eulogize!" said Rabbi Meir Simchah.

"But how could you possibly have known this beforehand?" asked the puzzled student.

Rabbi Meir Simchah replied, "Seventeen years ago, that maggid came to me and told me that he had undergone trial in a Jewish court of law, which was judged by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, and the great rabbi's decision was that the maggid had to pay, and the other party was freed of all financial obligations. The maggid told me at the time that his opinion was that the judgment was wrong, and he should not have had to pay, but Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan had a personal interest in judging the way he did and thus he had not judged fairly.

"When I heard this from the maggid, I said to him, 'Since you have spoken this way about Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, you will not have the merit of eulogizing him.'

"Therefore," concluded Rabbi Meir Simchah, "I was sure that something would occur to make it impossible for him to deliver that eulogy."

Rabbi Meir Simchah knew that when a person goes to court, he has the right to express whatever is on his mind and in his heart, but after a verdict has been reached, one must accept the judges' decision without question. We too must let our children express freely what is in their hearts, but in the end we should do our utmost to help them arrive at the correct judgment so that they can follow the right path in their lives.

The following story was told by Eliyahu Hanavi.

Once there was a student who had learned much Tanach, much Mishnah, and much Gemara, but he died an early death, having enjoyed only half a normal life span. His wife, in her grief, began to behave insanely. She went to the houses of her husband's friends and asked them, "My husband, who had learned much Tanach, much Mishnah, and much Gemara, why did he live only half a normal life span?" But no one had an answer to her question.

Once I [Eliyahu Hanavi] was walking in the market, and I entered her yard. She came and sat down across from me and began crying.

I said to her, "My daughter, why are you crying?"

She said to me, "Rabbi, my husband, who had learned much Tanach, much Mishnah, and much Gemara, died at half his expected life span."

I said to her, "My daughter, when you were a niddah, what did your husband do?" She said to me, "Rabbi, G-d forbid, he did not touch me even with a small finger. And after the flow of blood stopped, I would wait the entire period of seven clean days, so that I would not have any doubts."

I said to her, "Your husband told you correctly to keep seven clean days, since the Sages say that zavin and zavos, niddos and women after childbirth, all these become pure [tahor] only after seven days, as the verse says, "And if she shall become clean from her impurity, then she shall count seven days, and after that she shall be pure."(1) But in those clean days what did your husband do? Did you hand him a knife and he touched the knife even with his small finger?"

She said to me, "Rabbi, I swear to you, I washed his feet, I smeared him with oil, and I shared with him one bed, while I was dressed and he was dressed. But he had no intentions of forbidden relations in mind."

I said to her, "Blessed be G-d who took his life, since He shows no favoritism but gives equal treatment to all. The Torah writes, 'And to a woman in her impurity [niddah] you shall not come near.'(2) One might have thought that a man is allowed to hug her or kiss her or to converse with her intimately; therefore the Torah says, 'You shall not come near.' One might have thought that one can share a bed with her when he is dressed; therefore the Torah says, 'You shall not come near.' The Torah is teaching us that a person should not say to himself, 'When she is in her niddah period, one is forbidden to touch her flesh or her bed. But when she finishes her niddah period [but hasn't yet gone to the mikveh] one might think that he may not touch her flesh but he may be in the same bed. Therefore the Torah explained itself through Yechezkel, 'And he did not contaminate the wife of his friend, and he did not come near a woman that was a niddah.'(3) The Torah compared a woman in a state of niddah to a married woman, to warn a man to take the same care in distancing himself from her."
(YALKUT 569)

What was the wife implying when she went to all her husband's friends and asked them why her husband had died so young? Why did the woman mention her husband's tremendous learning whenever she posed her question? What is implied by the statement, "Once I was walking in the market," and why did Eliyahu mention this? Why did the woman mention the seven clean days when Eliyahu's first question concerned the time when she was a niddah? Why did Eliyahu ask about passing a knife? What was her husband's mistake? Why was his mistake so severe that he was punished with death at an early age?

G-d's Fair Judgment

She went to the houses of her husband's friends and asked them, "My husband, who had learned much Tanach, much Mishnah, and much Gemara, why did he live only half a normal life span?"

In questioning her husband's friends, the woman was implying that her husband had been judged unfairly by G-d. Here was a man who had been very learned in Torah, which is known to bring a blessing of a long life, as the verse says, "Long life in its right and in its left wealth and honor."4 Since the effort her husband had invested in his Torah learning was known to all, and especially to his colleagues in scholarship, who could honestly evaluate his level of learning and knew what a genius he really was, she questioned them, thereby indicating that she felt that her husband had been wrongly judged.

This was also the reason why her grief was so intense that she could not be comforted. When a person accepts G-d's judgment, even if it is painful, he is comforted in the knowledge that Divine justice prevails, and thus he accepts G-d decree. However, when the punishment seems to be unjust, it is much harder to find comfort, since one is puzzled as to why it happened at all. Therefore the woman searched for an answer that would explain G-d's judgment so that she could then be comforted over her husband's death.

Eliyahu Comes to Visit

Once I [Eliyahu Hanavi] was walking in the market, and I entered her yard...
She said to me, "Rabbi, I swear to you, I washed his feet, I smeared him with oil, and I shared with him one bed, while I was dressed and he was dressed."

The statement by Eliyahu, "Once I was walking in the market," teaches us that Eliyahu appeared to her as a common person. This is also apparent from the fact that the wife was not surprised at his appearance and spoke to him calmly as if he had been any talmid chacham of those days. Of course, when we encounter a stranger, we cannot discern whether it is Eliyahu or an ordinary person whom we have met, but it seems from the incident related here that Eliyahu comes when there is a need to clarify some perplexing matter or to perform some other act that ordinary humans are incapable of doing themselves. The reason the woman mentioned the seven clean days, even though that was not part of Eliyahu's original question, was because she apparently knew that something was amiss during the seven clean days, and tried to justify her actions. Keeping strictly the restrictions of the seven clean days is a great challenge for many people, since during the days of the flow of blood there is ample evidence of a woman's impurity, but during the seven clean days, only the Torah's command prevents the couple from being together, for the actual impurity is intangible.

A husband and wife hand things to one another constantly every day. People see no harm in this, since they hand objects to strangers as well without anyone thinking that the act indicates any special closeness. Yet this is exactly the point Eliyahu was trying to make. It does not matter whether you see any harm in what you are doing. What matters is whether our Sages permit these actions or not, since only our Sages could understand the harm that can result from our actions. Furthermore, every man has his subjective feelings to deal with, and of course he should have strong feelings for his wife, and thus he may not be able to make an objective judgment if he tries to decide for himself what ought to be permitted.

The Husband's Mistake

But he had no intention of forbidden relations in mind.

The greatest mistake of the husband in the midrash was his self-confidence in his assumption that he would not be tempted to have forbidden relations with his wife, although he was sharing one bed with her. He felt that he possessed enough self-control to prevent himself from engaging in any forbidden act. Therefore, he reasoned, he could allow himself to be lenient, even though our Sages forbade such actions, since he knew that they forbade sharing a bed only as a matter of precaution, and he felt that he did not need to take precautions, as he was confident that he would not come to sin. This was misplaced self-confidence. When someone is given a directive by people who are on a higher level than he is, he must learn to accept their judgment. Here the husband's misplaced self-confidence led to his believing that his judgment was wiser than that of the Sages, and this was a grave mistake. A person must submit to the voice of authority, especially when it comes from people who are older and wiser. Not to do so is foolishness, as our Sages say, "Chachamim always know their place."(5) You must know your place, and this means having the humility to accept directives from those who have commanded you and those whom you must obey.

The capital punishment her husband received resulted from his questioning the authority of the Sages. It was not desire that motivated him to do what he did, as his wife testified that he did not even consider committing a sin. Rather it was a question of authority that he was disregarding, and that is the basis of our Torah. If there would be no authority, then we could interpret the Torah any way we wish. The world would be a free-for-all, since everyone could decide for himself what to do and how to do it. Since the husband's sin attacked the very basis of Judaism, his punishment was so severe.

Be Open to Discussion

The husband questioned the authority of the Sages. He felt that he could do things that they did not allow, since nothing would happen. Although we are not allowed to question authority, we must give our children the opportunity to discuss what bothers them, so that we can help them work through their problems.

It is important for parents to be open to discussions with their children, especially when they are teenagers. This will show your children that you have nothing to hide and that you are proud of your principles and believe in them.

If they feel that they are not allowed to express themselves, then you are losing the opportunity to have your children really understand and develop a profound belief in Yiddishkeit. It is very sad when parents silence their children when they have disturbing questions. Be brave and answer them to the best of your ability.

Any subject is open to discussion. Let them speak out on whatever they have in their hearts. It is better for problems to be be identified and brought out into the open. If the problems are too great for the parents to deal with, they can always seek out professional help. But if they do not know what bothers their children, resentment builds up and no resolution is ever achieved.

You Don't Have to Know Everything

Some parents are reluctant to have discussions with their children, since they feel they lack the knowledge to answer their questions. This is not a sufficient reason to refrain from discussions. A parent can always tell his child that he must look up the answer to his question or he must discuss the question with experts in the field. Parents are not expected to know everything in the world. It is no shame to say that you do not know. Even the great Rashi says so numerous times, and we are obviously far beneath his intellectual or spiritual level.

You can tell your child this from the very outset, if this will help you. Tell your children that you want them to be able to share with you all their questions or problems, and you will honestly try to answer them to the best of your ability. You need not promise to solve all their problems, for no human being can do that for any other.

This is a good opening, since you are being frank and sincere and thus your words will be accepted.

Don't Be Surprised at What Is Asked

Never show surprise or dissatisfaction at your children's questions. If you do, you are causing them to refrain from disclosing what bothers them.

Instead be encouraging. Say to your child, "That is an interesting question." This will stimulate your child to ask whatever is on his mind and not hesitate. Do not say, "How can you ask such a question?" Such a response hurts and is discouraging. Every subject is open to discussion, and we must never allow ourselves to suppress any of our children's questions.

When children ask intimate questions, the parents can say that this is not the appropriate forum for such questions, but you will be happy to answer in a more private forum. This way the child will not feel that you are trying to evade his question and he will know that eventually he will receive an answer to his question. Many parents feel very uncomfortable at such questions, but our children need to know the facts of life, and it is much healthier if they hear this from their parents rather than from their friends.

Parents can present intimate matters in the proper light, whereas friends can give them inaccurate information. That is why it is crucial that children hear about these matters from their parents first.

Teenagers Think They Know It All

When trying to explain delicate matters to teenagers, it is common to find an attitude that they know it all and there is nothing we can reveal to them.

Great patience is needed to deal with children at this difficult age. Since teenagers have grown bodies, it is natural for them to think that they are grown up and know just as much as their parents. If we try to tell them that they still have a lot to learn and a lot of experience to gain, this will be very insulting to them.

Instead we can try to use our wisdom to show them the right way of doing things. We must do this delicately, so that they will accept our suggestions. If we degrade them, it will be very difficult for them to accept what we have to say.

Even when they have the wrong ideas, it is wise to say to a teenager, "That is a good idea, and I am proud of you for being able to figure things out for yourself. But perhaps the idea that I have for you will work even better." By saying it in this way, you are encouraging him to use his mind and not degrading him. This will help in the future, and it will help you in the present, since now he will be more open to accepting your suggestions.

Being a teenager is a difficult stage in life. We can help our children through that period if we use our common sense and show much patience, love, and understanding for their difficulties. We must listen carefully to what they are asking and to whatever they have to say. Only then can we gain their trust and be there for them when they need us the most.

1. Vayikra 15:28
2. Ibid., 18:19
3. Yechezkel 18:6
4. Mishlei 3:16
5. Sanhedrin 37a
6. Midrash Tanchuma, Vaera Ch. 5

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