CONTENTS AT A
THE FALLACY OF
"ONE'S OWN TORAH"
PRIORITIES IN HALACHA
INDICATIONS OF MENTAL HEALTH - OR ITS ABSENCE
CAN THIS PARTICULAR
FAMILY BE REPAIRED?
In 1998, there was a painful, heart-tugging
story of a 15 year old girl who was neglected so much that she was ready to kill herself
by taking poison pills.
Her mother was a self-proclaimed
baalas-chesed, a "kindness factory" who spent her days doing for others outside
of the family, coming home late every evening. Responsibility for the family fell on the
15 year old. After school, she would cook and feed a crew of little siblings, help them
with their homework, bathe them and put them to sleep by about 9 p.m. The 15 year old
would first then start her own homework. She was so stressed and fatigued that she would
fall asleep in school. When criticized for sleeping during class, she told her principal
that her mother was out doing chesed [kindness] for others all day, neglecting the family
and dumping motherly responsibilities on her. Instead of obtaining needed help or support
which she was longing and desperate for, the principal belittled and attacked her for not
appreciating what a tzadekess [angel/saint] her mother is.
The last straw came for her when she found
out that her father, also lacking time and attention from his "saintly"
and-too-busy-for-the-family wife, got himself a girlfriend with whom he obtained
companionship and other things not fit for a Torah Jew to write in public about. This
"last straw" trauma broke the 15 year old to the point at which the relief
promised by death seemed a more inviting option than life in this family. Baruch Hashem
the label of the poison warned that one taking the pills could become nauseous. Since the
girl had a severe aversion to nausea, she called the suicide off. But her deep and
long-term psychological wound and trauma was unresolved.
THE FALLACY OF "ONE'S OWN TORAH"
This tragic story shows how ostensibly frum
[seemingly religious] people can live a life AGAINST halacha, to the detriment of all
concerned. If a person picks and chooses, he has no involvement in the Torah of Hashem. By
deciding which parts of halacha to keep or violate, (s)he makes him/herself a god, a giver
of one's own Torah, and, as such, this phoney person serves avoda zara [idolatry] - with
him/herself the idol - which, in Torah law, one must die rather than do!
THE CHAZONE ISH WROTE THAT THE FIRST TEST
OF WHETHER A JEW IS TRULY FRUM [observant] IS WHETHER HE KEEPS THE ENTIRE BODY OF HALACHA.
Since many social problems would be addressed if Jews were committed to ALL halacha
(including those less convenient to keep such as inter-personal relationships, monetary
honesty and talking in shul), I will address the need for sound priorities and a sampling
of the segment of halachos about priorities, since insane priorities are at the root of
the above tragic story - and in some way or other at the root of many domestic trouble
cases. Perhaps with objective Torah data, further human damage may be averted. When you
have practical questions, take them case by case to a rov. I will also address some of the
psychological issues that the mother and the callous schoolmaster displayed, and which
pertain to mental health in family relationships and conduct.
Unfortunately, with the burgeoning of the
contemporary "relationship crisis;" among singles, couples and families; more
and more marriages seem headed towards sub-human, rather than the above-human, as expected
of people of the G-d-given Torah.
I've seen people who would be punitively
abusive or neglectful towards a spouse and/or children, but would be philanthropical to
the outside world, do enormous favors for the approval of strangers or for political or
business advantage. It is perverse and destructive.
Throughout Torah law you find sets of
priorities. For example:
* When two people come to you for a
kindness and you can only do one,
* When two people come to you for charity
and you can only afford to give to one,
* Yibum (the mitzva to marry a deceased
relative's widow), when there are more than one "eligible" surviving relatives
(i.e. who should be more obligated to marry the widow?) or
* Inheritance law (in what order do
relatives have priority to receive assets).
One basic rule of thumb in determining
priority levels generally is: the closer a person is, the higher the priority. There are
some exceptions, such as: a starving and destitute stranger gets food money before your
rich cousin gets a business-improvement loan with the same money.
A second rule of thumb is: the more
something means to the other person, the greater the obligation can be to do for the
person. For example, if a person is dependent, needy, in trouble, hurting, vulnerable,
weak or has declined from a higher station in life to a lower station; these can be
halachic reasons for treating a person as a high priority for kindness or charity.
A third rule of thumb is that kindness must
be consistent with honest good. Indulgence is not necessarily good. "Never let
KINDNESS AND TRUTH abandon you (Proverbs 3:3)." Sometimes something truly good may be
painful. Sometimes something that seems pleasant is not objective or long-run good.
Sometimes doing good thing A creates bad thing B. Since the gemora [Suka 30b] says that
there is no mitzva if it comes through a sin, bad for the sake of good is not meritorious
- the whole thing remains a sin.
A fourth rule of thumb is that different
issues have different levels of weight in Jewish law. Sometimes 1. individual conditions
and/or 2. the combination of complex issues in any specific question affects what
constitutes a priority in a given case. Therefore, you very often probably cannot make
decisions about priorities without knowing the entire gamut of Jewish law. Therefore, take
all practical questions to an orthodox rabbi who is a high-level authority in Torah law;
who is known, accepted and respected by the entire Torah-observant community and who is
known to be experienced and successful in the subject at issue.
These same rules of weight or priority
apply in family: 1. the closer any person is to you, 2. the more a thing means to (or
impacts upon) a person, 3. the more true long-run good to be produced and 4. when your
action is clarified and formulated by da'as Torah, the higher the priority.
UNTIL A PERSON CARES FOR A SPOUSE AND
CHILDREN SATISFACTORILY, (S)HE HAS NO BUSINESS PLAYING THE SAINT TO THE REST OF THE WORLD.
The esteemed sixteenth century mystic,
Rabbi Chayim Veetal, writes kabalisticly on family priorities. "The characteristics
of a person are measured exclusively by his relationship to his spouse. This means that
one may engage in kindness to the general population: loans, gifts, caring for the sick,
comforting mourners, giving joy to newlyweds, and more. Certainly the person will be
happily rewarded at the time of his accounting [after death], for he has many merits for
his acts of goodness. However, know and believe that Heaven investigates how he behaves
with his spouse. If he also bestowed kindness upon one's spouse all of his life, it is
happy and good for him. However, IF THE PERSON IS CRUEL, NEGLECTFUL, ANGRY, STRICT,
MERCILESS, UNKIND OR IRRESPONSIBLE IN HIS HOUSE, THIS OUTWEIGHS ALL THE KINDNESSES THAT HE
DID FOR THOSE OUTSIDE OF HIS FAMILY, IN HIS HEAVENLY JUDGEMENT."
Chazal say, in a variety of contexts, that
a man must supply his wife's and children's needs; the mother is responsible for the home;
that both spouses must honor and stay peaceful with the other; and that the mitzva for a
child to fear a mother comes first in the Torah [Leviticus 19:3] because it is presumed a
mother is sweeter and warmer to the child (giving less cause to a child to fear a mother
than a father). There is no question that a spouse must literally treat the other spouse
and each of their children like each is the single most important person in the entire
universe CONSISTENTLY. Your family's approval means more than the approval of your manager
at work, more than your biggest customer, more than the political hack who can get you
elected or can obtain funding or a favor for your dream project, more than your
neighborhood, more than the institution that will make you the guest of honor at its big
dinner for being a living doll. No one is born to be anyone else's dish-rag or victim. A
SPOUSE AND CHILDREN BRING LIFE'S PRIME OBLIGATION FOR A HUSBAND AND A WIFE TO DO KINDNESS
PRIORITIES IN HALACHA
Major halachic works; such as Shulchan
Aruch, [the Chafetz Chayim's] Ahavas Chesed, Rambam and Chasam Sofer, etc.; codify Kedimos
(priority levels) in halacha and I will give some representative examples to dispel any
notion that the Torah wants one to be a tzadik in the street and a cruel, impenetrable,
negligent and blindly callous lunatic in the home. This will convey how much one needs to
consult a rov for guidance.
A poor person, or a rich person who is on
the verge of collapse, takes precedence over a wealthy person. We see from this halacha
that there is a halachic concept of "prevention" so if your neglect of family
can cause now-healthy children to be psychologically destroyed (or already-harmed children
to become worse), it is an avaira [sin]. A poor person who needs food comes before a poor
person who needs clothes. We see from this: the more basic the need, the higher on the
priority scale. In our present context: THERE IS NO MORE BASIC NEED AND PRIORITY THAN
CARING FOR YOUR EMOTIONALLY, PHYSICALLY, MENTALLY AND SPRITUALLY DEPENDENT CHILDREN!
A relative comes before a neighbor, and a
neighbor before the poor people of your city, who are before poor people of another city.
One's children come before one's siblings. A Kohain comes before a Levi who comes before a
Yisroel who comes before a momzer [one born illegitimately from a coupling prohibited by
the Torah]. The more one knows Torah, the higher the priority, so a momzer Talmid Chachom
(Torah scholar) comes before an "am ha'aretz (ignoramus)" Kohain Gadol. The wife
of a Talmid Chachom is counted equal to her husband. However, a relative (depending how
close) generally comes before a Talmid Chachom, except one's rav muvhok (prime Torah
teacher), and a poor person comes before any talmid chachom who is not poor.
An orphan girl comes before an orphan boy
but a male relative comes before a female non-relative. Orphans and widows must be treated
with extraordinary compassion. This includes orphans and widows who have wealth or high
rank. This also includes any non-orphans and non-widows whose spirits are down, who are
suffering or who are weak or needy in any way.
Danger to life, limb or health comes before
any financial help. The more respectable a person is, the more it is a mitzva to give
kindness or charity to him. If two people are equal (e.g. financially or how distant they
are as relatives) and you hate one and love the other, you help the one you hate to break
your yaitzer hora (evil inclination). A close relative comes before a non-relative who you
hate, but if the relative is not quite close you must ask a shaalah. You only favor one
you hate in order to break the evil trait of hate. Do not favor someone you hate when the
hate is for his being an intentional "rasha (one proven to be evil in the eyes of
If you cannot sustain yourself when you
sustain another, your life comes first. Until you take care of higher priorities, there is
no mitzva to give to lower priorities. Someone who comes to you now has priority over a
possibility that you may perhaps need to give to a higher priority person in the future,
because the need is present and definite. However, if someone comes to you now for chesed
or tzadaka and you know clearly that someone on a higher priority level will be coming to
you, and you are not able to give to both, you withhold from the lower priority person now
to be able to give to the higher priority person later.
There are many more principles of priority
in halacha and there can be many factors that can apply in any given case. Please bring
specific questions to a competent and G-d-fearing rov.
OF MENTAL HEALTH - OR ITS ABSENCE
There are certain criteria by which
psychology judges mental health. For example, signs of good psychological health include
1. adaptability, 2. living in the present, 3. the capacity to be affected by input from
outside of one's own self and own mind (e.g. other people, rules or principles, realistic
response to circumstances, etc.) and 4. the ability to grow.
Obviously, a person 1. who is rigid, 2. who
lives in the past or future (e.g. present-day neurotic associations stemming from
childhood dysfunction, or overpowering anxieties about what might happen in the future),
3. who is closed to, or is unaffected by, input from another person (the other's needs,
feelings, opinions, harm, requests, vulnerability, etc.) or is callously indifferent about
another person, or who fails to deal with circumstances or principles as they really are,
or 4. who refuses to grow as a human being... does not show signs of good psychological
These provide "tools" or
"data" that help to define what the situation is. All of these unhealthy signs
indicate that there is serious work to be done. When a person has psychological
difficulties which stem from abuse, emotional trauma, dysfunction, a neurotic parental
role model, etc., the person's relating patterns are essentially 1. continuations of their
"psychological training," 2. defenses against the damage, fright or suffering
they went through in the past and/or 3. defenses against what they presently associate
with it. This makes their relating very complicated because present behavior is very
enmeshed with nasty, unhealthy and complex origins in the past. Since such people tend to
be somewhat blind to the meaning or impact of their behavior, and are generally judgmental
and defensive, it is difficult to get them clear or anchored in what the issues are, or
what they have to do, to not do and/or to change. They always have an explanation. What is
tragic, of course, is that the person, regardless of denial, is causing "human
damage" by abuse or emotional harm to family members. DAMAGE WITH AN EXPLANATION IS
STILL DAMAGE! Their refusal to recognize the reality outside of the "private reality
in their mind" does not help those whom they are damaging. It is critical that they
come to deal responsibly to repair their personality, behavior and perceptions.
If the person is "reachable" we
can work to increase awareness of the hurtful, destabilizing and disruptive impact of
behavior on others, to accept his or her responsibility to shield spouse and children from
harm and to gradually bestow good on other family members while working out the inner
turmoil, conflict, pain, anxieties, tension, frustrations, damage and confusion.
If the person is not reachable, the road is
more difficult and slow. We would have to strategically work around the resistant
individual by changing other people or elements in the scenario; for example, build
self-esteem, teach "emotional self-defense," increase the sense of value in the
marriage or family (to maneuver the offender to having more fear of losing the marriage or
family unit, and to having more motivation to change) or make the offender's behavior be
ineffective or backfire. Then, we can, hopefully, bring the partner into the counseling
process. This, of course, does not apply if someone is "closed tight" or
dangerous. It's always a case-by-case question.
Sometimes psychological or emotional
problems stem from early in life. Sometimes the problems originate in the marriage or are
brought to the surface in the marriage. To the extent that the marriage originates or
triggers psychological or emotional difficulties, the marriage itself must provide repair
(deeper or earlier problems have to be dealt with using different therapeutic processes).
As Rambam writes, to fix a bad extreme you must go to the other (good) extreme. The couple
must be supportive, nurturing, sensitive and understanding; to create together an
environment of emotional comfort, stability, responsiveness, fulfillment, cooperation and
security. This is crucial to gradually making the family more wholesome, calm, trusting,
healthy and functional.
CAN THIS PARTICULAR
FAMILY BE REPAIRED?
In the case of this tragic 15 year old
near-suicide, her parents have proven to be highly dysfunctional and unreliable. Her
schoolmaster does not seem to be operating on all burners either, or has a serious lacking
in hashkofa and halacha, and may be sufficiently incompetent to be guilty in halacha of
theft for paychecks received.
Besides the damage done to the oldest
daughter, I would be concerned that all children in the family be checked out for
psychological impact or damage. Since we are talking priorities, the highest one in this
situation would be to get those children into a normal and nurturing setting; shielded
from what already is too much evil, sickness and harm in these young and vulnerable lives.
The 15 year old should be made aware that
she is not to blame and should be taken out of that destructive environment. She cannot
repair her parents. That is up to them. It must be impressed on them that their behavior
does not work and cannot be accepted. The mother appears to be very confused or disturbed,
which does not offer high hopes for short-run resolution. She has to make her husband and
children the primary (or only) focus in her drive for "tzidkuss [saintliness],"
"till further notice." For most practical purposes, there is no mother in this
family at present. This will continue to be the case until her husband and children have
all of the kindness, charity, love, compassion, time and attention that they need from
her. If, due to her "psychological baggage," she cannot be prevailed upon to
change, she is probably a sick woman whose activities are not le'shaim Shomayim (for the
sake of Heaven) but are rather for a deep need stemming from childhood (which the mother
may not even have conscious awareness of without deep and sustained therapeutic
counseling) for approval, love and validation. Since the mother has no insecurity about
her children's love, regard or need for her; their claims upon her devotion are 1.
meaningless in her disturbed mind, and 2. impotent in the practical world. Although no one
can make a fair or definitive judgement without knowing the woman in great depth, we can
see that her actions make her somewhat of a "rodaif [assailant]" and the
damaging affects of her behavior do have to be guarded against.
If the father can do tshuva shlaima
(complete and permanent repentance) for his personal weakness and despicable lapse in
judgement and behavior; FOR THE SAKE OF THE FAMILY; and can assume a more DOMINANT,
MATURE, DEFINING, WHOLESOME AND TRUSTWORTHY ROLE IN HEADING AND DIRECTING THE FAMILY; the
family (at least father and children) might be salvageable. If not, then the children
have, for all intents and purposes, neither father nor mother, Rachmana Litzlon [G-d save
them]. Perhaps concerned and responsible relatives or others might take the 15 year old
and the younger siblings in, at least sometimes. They should be people who are in the
vicinity, are loving and who will enable the children to have as normal and unchanged a
life as circumstances can allow.
By no definition is paining a Jew to the
edge of suicide a frum or justifiable thing to do. An aberration cannot be whitewashed by
putting payos on it. Anything which is not le'shaim Shomayim will, in the end, not succeed
and not endure. King Solomon wrote (Proverbs 3:17) that the Torah's "ways are
pleasant and all of its paths are peace."