True Story

Wednesday, 10 April, 2019 - 4:23 pm

Many years ago I found myself seated for a Shabbos meal at the home of a wonderful family.  The environment was as warm and wonderful as the sumptuous chicken soup that only a loving mother can make.  The singing was soulful, and delightfully intertwined with inspiring words of Torah.

I sat in close proximity to the eldest son, a very clever boy who was more than happy to display his knowledge. He was clearly in sync with his family’s passion for Shabbos, and had many interesting things to say about the weekly parsha.

As the entrée was served to all the guests, our gracious host shared some insights of his own on the weekly Torah reading.  Suddenly, to the astonishment of all present, our host’s eldest son interrupted his father mid-sentence. He announced, with the pride and satisfaction of youthful unawareness, “What you are saying is not true.” He continued to explain that his father’s statement was not true because… and … and …

If there was ever a “mic drop” moment that was certainly it! Jaw agape, attempting to save face and correct his son, our host tossed a casual glance at the boy and began explain where his son had gone wrong. 

But the child would not relent.  “It’s not true, that’s wrong,” he declared in bold defiance.  It was clear and obvious to all of us (except perhaps the host, who was shocked by his son’s behavior) that the boy’s behavior was only embarrassing to himself and in no way a repudiation of the host’s knowledge.  (The child was actually incorrect.) 

Why did the boy act so disrespectfully?  What was driving him to correct his father, and why couldn’t he relent?

While I cannot presume to know the inner relationship and dialogue norms within the family, it appeared to me that in truth the child was not trying to embarrass his father. Rather, he was eager to impress him.  He wanted to display his learning and knowledge to give his father nachas and enjoyment.

Yet without empathy and self-awareness, this passion misguided him to breach the boundaries of acceptable behavior, leading to an unfortunate display of disrespect.

We see the same dynamics at work in this week’s parsha in the story of Nadav and Avihu. Their deep and noble desire for the ultimate closeness with Hashem overshadowed all of their learning, Moshe’s instructions, and even Hashem’s vision for the incense offering as He outlined in the Torah.  Following their passion single-mindedly led them to disregard the will of the very One whom they wanted most! 

Relationships that are sustaining must be built on both parties’ will. Passion, even passion for the highest things, carries with it the danger of tunnel vision. Seeing only our own desires might, chas veshalom, lead to breaking the  boundaries that our relationships require to be life-giving.  

What guards us against tunnel vision? Two keys are self-awareness and empathy. When we are self-aware, we know our desires and acknowledge that we, ourselves, want them. When we have empathy, we are able to feel what others want. Empathy also implies compassion towards others, and an interest in their wellbeing. Instilling empathy and self-awareness protects us from passion’s tunnel vision.

As parents and teachers, we must pass down those keys to ensure that our children’s offerings elicit a sweet life of goodness and happiness. Do we assist children to name their feelings and desires? Are we modeling how to invent solutions that work with everyone’s desires? Do we practice finding out what others want? Even letting children ask guests what they would like in their chicken soup reinforces the awareness that different people want different things. My wish for all of us is that we have children whose passion for life and Torah is unlocked with the keys of empathy and self-awareness.

Shabbat shalom.

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