An article I wrote for Forward on the targeting of statues of Confederate leaders and slave owners can be read here.
James Bennet, who served as the editorial page editor of the New York Times for the past five years, was recently walked to the journalistic guillotine by the powers-that-be at that once-venerable institution. His sin? A controversial idea appeared on the paper’s opinion page on his watch.
Mr. Bennet’s figurative head rolled out of the Times’ glass doors onto 8th Avenue because of two sets of riots — those on the streets of many American cities and a more genteel but no less disconcerting one in the paper’s newsroom.
The latter unrest followed the Times’ publication of the op-ed at issue, by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who made a case for the deployment of military forces and even, if necessary, the invocation of the Insurrection Act, to control attacks on police and looting of businesses that attended some of the recent public protests.
Mr. Cotton was, of course, echoing President Trump in that proposal. In his remarks at the White House before embarking on his trek across the street to pose with a Bible in front of a church, Mr. Trump called the street violence “domestic acts of terror” and pledged that “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
One can find that threat, for its incendiary nature, entirely objectionable. One can find the very idea of using the military domestically entirely objectionable. One can find even the president himself entirely objectionable.
But no less objectionable should be the barring of a citizen, much less a sitting Senator, from expressing his feelings otherwise. And just as objectionable is wailing a post facto mea culpa for not having prevented the expression of that opinion.
But with a considerable number of the Times’ black staff expressing their feeling that publishing Mr. Cotton’s piece had endangered their lives — who knew that Times employees rampage and loot in their spare time? — and other staffers concurring that the op-ed was an odious and perilous thing, the swooning Gray Lady had to pop a pill, and her gentlemen-in-waiting dutifully beat their breasts in remorse.
Although Mr. Bennet and the paper’s publisher Arthur Sulzberger had initially, and sanely, defended the op-ed’s publication on the grounds that it was the paper’s duty to present views at odds with its own opinions, the swell of anger in the newsroom (and, reportedly, a number of cancelled subscriptions) quickly convinced them that Mr. Cotton’s words constituted a veritable call to fascism. Mr. Bennet admitted, or at least claimed, that he hadn’t read the piece before its publication, which an assistant had green-lighted, and thus he became the plumpest sheep to offer the angry snowflake gods. He quickly offered his resignation.
Leave aside whether the idea of calling on the military to quell domestic crimes is a good one. It is not. And leave aside whether threatening to do so was a good idea. It was not. Focus only on the right of someone to feel otherwise.
It’s always been an essential part of liberal philosophy to allow people to profess, and others to consider, their opinions. To be sure, an op-ed advocating armed insurrection or the shooting of protesters on sight would arguably be worthy of rejection by a responsible medium. A business is entitled to its standards, indeed obligated to have some.
But is the very idea of invoking an established federal law, in this case the Insurrection Act, which dates to 1807 but was amended as recently as 2007, that empowers a president to deploy military and National Guard troops domestically in limited circumstances, so beyond the pale?
Even conceding — though it deserves no concession — that such deployment here to stop violence on the streets would somehow endanger innocents, would an op-ed advocating, say, the deployment of the military in a hostile foreign country to protect Americans — an act that could much more easily result in casualties — be equally unworthy of publication and discussion?
Someone should introduce the Times’ editorial board to the Talmud, where the concept of presenting a misguided view of a law’s implications for a situation is essential to the ferreting out of the true approach. Putting forth something illogical or unreasonable isn’t merely a stylistic diversion, it is a vital part of the process of getting to truth.
And so, the paper could have best served the public by simply soliciting an op-ed countering Mr. Cotton’s point of view. (Hey, I was available.)
The irony here, for those, presumably including members of the Times’ editorial board, who consider the president himself a danger to American society, is that the paper’s action handed Mr. Trump a golden opportunity on a silver platter to reiterate his contempt for the “lamestream” media. Look, he could say (and did), the “fake media” are afraid to countenance any point of view that differs from their own.
And, at least this time, at least one medium could have no reasonable rejoinder.
© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran
A piece I wrote for Forward about what the Talmud has to say about the nature of men and the need for governmental authority, and the movement to “defund” police, can be read here.
In a few days, astute students of Daf Yomi will encounter a hint to a hidden life lesson of indescribable worth.
If, that is, they look closely at the mishna on 103a in massechta Shabbos that concerns the melacha, or Shabbos-forbidden creative act, of “writing.”
Actions forbidden on Shabbos are determined by which operations were necessary for the building and use of the mishkan, or desert-tabernacle.
Where was writing used? The mishna goes on to explain that the gilded wooden beams used for the structure – which was dismantled and rebuilt repeatedly – were inscribed with letters to indicate the placement of the beams. A similar system is used by many of us in building our sukkos.
What a keen mind will recall when reading about the definition of the melacha of writing is that, earlier in the tractate (73a), it was paired with its opposite number, “erasing,”
And why is erasing a melacha? Rashi on 73a explains that its forbidden-on-Shabbos status derives from the need the builders of the mishkan had to correct errors when the wrong letters were mistakenly inscribed on beams.
Now, stop and think about that. The mishkan-builders likely took drinks of water during their labors. They may have washed their hands and occasionally stretched. Yet drinking, washing hands and stretching aren’t thereby made into forbidden actions on the Sabbath. Why not?
Obviously, because they are not intrinsic to the construction project. Only actions absolutely necessary for the construction of the mishkan are designated as prohibited on the Sabbath.
And so, if removing mistakenly inscribed letters is the reason for the Sabbath-prohibition of “erasing,” then errors… must be… indispensable parts of the mishkan-building project.
That is the important truth hidden here: Erring is vital.
Mistakes are indispensable parts of every endeavor. No child walks until he first takes an uneasy step and falls; or learns to ride a bike without a minor mishap or two. The successes don’t come despite the first unsuccessful attempts; they come as a result of them.
Errors are in fact essential parts of every successful project. Duke University civil engineering professor Henry Petroski wrote a book whose subtitle says it all: “To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.” He makes the case that a successful feat of invention will always depend on a series of failures. Only the commission and analysis of errors, he elaborates, can propel any invention to perfection. “Failure,” Professor Petroski explains about engineering, “is what drives the field forward.”
That is no less true in the sciences. “An expert,” the famous Jewish physicist Neils Bohr once remarked, “is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”
And, most importantly, it’s true, too, in spiritual endeavors. When it comes to Torah-study thoughts, the Talmud (Gittin, 43a) teaches: “One does not stand on [i.e. understand] them unless one [first] stumbles over them.” Every talmid of Talmud knows that well; there is no comprehension like that which brightly dawns after one has made and recognized a wrong assumption.
Errors, moreover, are part of the project of life itself, a fact intrinsic to the concept of teshuva.
Among the published collected letters of the late Rav Yitzchok Hutner, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin from 1940 into the 1970s, is one he wrote to a student who had shared his despondence and depression over personal spiritual failures.
What makes life meaningful, the Rosh Yeshiva explained in response to his student, is not basking in the sunshine of one’s “good inclination” but rather engaging, repeatedly and no matter the setbacks, in the battle against our inclination to sin.
Rabbi Hutner notes that Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, (Mishlei, 24:16) teaches us that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up.” That, wrote the Rosh Yeshiva, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles — including the failures — are inherent to the achievement of eventual, ultimate success. If we find ourselves flat on our backs, we must pick ourselves up and resume the fight. And, if need be, again. And again.
And so, if we ever find ourselves succumbing to despondency or depression born of mistakes we’ve made, what we need to do is stop and remind ourselves why erasing writing on Shabbos is forbidden.
© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran
The article below is from the website My Jewish Learning, and can be found at: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/understanding-the-sotah-ritual/
Each year, the Shabbat after Shavuot leaves some Jews who follow the day’s Torah reading puzzled, upset or embarrassed. A major element of the Torah portion Naso concerns the sotah, or “unfaithful wife,” and it entails something strange, and indeed unparalleled anywhere else in the Torah: an apparent trial by ordeal.
Many ancient cultures — and even less ancient ones, like the 17th-century Puritans who conducted the Salem witch trials — used ostensibly supernatural means to determine the guilt or innocence of someone accused of a crime. The accused was subjected to an unpleasant, or downright torturous, experience. Establishing innocence often meant just surviving the ordeal, but sometimes it meant not surviving it, in which case the verdict brought solace only to the accused’s survivors.
According to the Torah, the sotah law kicks in when a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful and warns her to not seclude herself with a particular other man. If it is established that she ignored the warning, she becomes subject to a ritual that involves her drinking a concoction of water, a bit of dirt from under the Temple’s marble floor, a bitter herb and the rubbed-off dried ink of the text of the Torah’s description of the sotah ritual, including God’s name.
If the woman is guilty, she and the man with whom she sinned will suffer a terrible death. The Talmud says that if the woman has great merit in fostering Torah study, she may not die immediately but only show symptoms at the time of a malady that will eventually take her life. But if she is innocent, she will not only suffer no ill effects, but will be blessed with children if she was childless and with healthy ones if previous ones were sickly.
The sotah drink ingredients are, if unpleasant, entirely innocuous. And so it would take a divine intervention to bring about the described punishment. Pondering those facts well is the beginning of understanding why the ritual exists and why, unlike every other law in the Torah, the sotah faces not a trial but an ordeal.
When a punishable Torah law was intentionally committed in ancient times, if witnesses attested to the violation, a court was empowered to mete out the prescribed punishment. If there were no qualified witnesses, then the crime was ignored by the court. In the Talmud’s words, “God has many messengers.” So if God chose to punish the violator, God could find a way to do so. So why is the sotah subjected to this ritual?
Well, actually, she isn’t subjected. If she chooses to simply dissolve her marriage and forfeit the financial support promised her, the husband is compelled to grant her a divorce and she suffers no other penalty. And therein lies the second key to understanding the strange law of sotah. The ritual is not intended to punish the woman if she is guilty. It is to absolve her if she is innocent, and preserve love and trust in her marriage.
The entire point of the sotah ritual, in other words, is to convince a husband who has every reason to be suspicious of his wife’s fidelity, since she secluded herself with another man. God is involved only to convince the husband that his wife is not adulterous. The husband’s jealousy will thus dissolve and allow him and his wife to resume their marriage in trust and love. The wife may have still done something wrong, but the husband’s worst suspicions have been divinely exploded.
One can imagine the reconciliation that would certainly follow. That is why the talmudic maxim most associated with the sotah law is, “So great is peace between a man and his wife that the Torah commands that the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, written in sanctity, should be erased onto the [sotah] water.”
(c) 2020 MyJewishLearning
One of the Covid-19 vaccines being studied has yielded encouraging results. That good news should yield us something too: a sense of awe at the accomplishment.
Earlier this week, the biotech company Moderna, which partnered with the National Institutes of Health to develop the vaccine, announced that results of a Phase 1 clinical trial showed that eight study participants developed antibodies for the virus like those who have experienced and survived the disease. And lab experiments with mice showed that the vaccine prevented the virus from infecting cells.
The study hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, and Phase 2 trials, which will involve several hundred subjects, are yet to come. But even the achievement to date is impressive.
If our wonderment, however, is only at the amazing progress toward, hopefully, a successful vaccine, we will have missed the truly awe-inspiring story behind the story.
A vaccine, you likely know, works by stimulating immune cells called lymphocytes to produce antibodies, specialized protein molecules that counter the targeted antigen, or toxic invader, and thus prevent the disease it could cause from taking hold.
Vaccines are made of dead or weakened antigens that can’t cause an infection but nevertheless stimulate the immune system to produce the necessary antibodies. Although with time, the produced antibodies will break down, special “memory cells” remain in the body and, when the antigen is encountered again, even years later, the memory cells can produce new antibodies to fight it.
This happens within our bodies constantly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a healthy individual can produce millions of antibodies a day, fighting infections so efficiently that people never even know they were exposed to an antigen.
Last year, a team of scientists at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego published results of their antibody research in the respected journal Nature. Based on their findings, they estimated that the human body has the potential to make a quintillion — that’s one million trillion — unique antibodies.
Imagine for a moment if the workings of our immune systems were suddenly made visible to us.
We would be struck dumb.
“If the stars should appear,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, only “one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of G-d which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
Our immune systems, like the stars, are usually and easily taken for granted; their very ubiquity makes it hard to fully appreciate them. But appreciating them is the privilege, indeed the duty, of every thinking, sensitive person.
Returning to this week’s happy news. Is what really amazes us the technological breakthrough that could lead to an effective vaccine? Or is the true object of our astonishment and wonder the suddenly focused-upon workings of our biological processes?
Once upon a time, after all, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful people, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts.
Back in 1996, a sheep named Dolly was successfully cloned, the first such triumph. I recall the admiration, wonder and dread that the accomplishment evoked around the world.
What exactly had scientists done? They had managed to transfer a cell from the mammary gland of an adult sheep into another sheep’s unfertilized egg cell whose nucleus had been removed; and the egg cell was then stimulated to develop, and eventually implanted in the womb of yet a third sheep, which bore Dolly.
I recall thinking at the time that, impressive as the experiment was, all that had essentially been achieved was the coaxing of already existent genetic material to do precisely what it does, well, all the time. The achievement of producing Dolly bas Dolly was, to be sure, a major one; myriad obstacles had to be overcome, and a single set of chromosomes, rather than the usual pair from two parents, had to be convinced to do the job.
But, still and all, other than the unusual means of bringing it about, what was witnessed was a natural process that takes place millions of times in millions of species each and every day without capturing anyone’s attention. A natural process that was, like all natural processes in the end, a miracle — no less one for its ubiquity.
Likewise, with all due recognition of the great and praiseworthy efforts to create an effective vaccine for Covid-19, may they be successful, what happened this week was, in the end, a cajoling of immune systems to do… what immune systems do billions of times daily.
So our proper appreciation of the scientific knowledge we have today, and our gratitude to the scientists that used that knowledge to advance the drive for an effective vaccine should be joined by — indeed, overwhelmed by — our ultimate awe for the immune systems with which our Creator endowed us.
Whether it’s manipulating the creation of a sheep fetus or of an immune response, the true marvel lies not in the manipulation but in the manipulated, in the myriad miracles Hashem implanted in the world He created.
© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Amid the much physical, economic and psychological suffering being borne by so many during the current health crisis, some have, no doubt, thought — perhaps even given voice to — the age-old expression of protest of the cruel hand of fate: “Why me?”
There’s a Jewish answer to that question. It lies, I think, in an incident we encountered in last week’s Torah portion, in the story of the mekallel, the blasphemer.
In that account, a man — who, according to the mesorah, had been born to a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man during the subjugation of our ancestors in Egypt — wanted to join the tribe of his mother’s Jewish husband. Denied membership, he railed against G-d in an appalling way and, eventually, on orders from Above, was executed.
The narrative, though, begins with the words “A man left….”
It is a strange and superfluous phrase, for which the Midrash offers several explanations. The first one cited by Rashi is an enigma: “He left his world.”
What could leaving one’s world possibly mean?
A number of years ago, a young man took counsel of Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, now the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Israel in Baltimore. The seeker explained that, due to what he felt was an unchangeable psychological limitation, he would never be able to marry. But he was fully committed to Judaism, which makes marriage a high priority. What should he do?
Rabbi Feldman told him that if, indeed, he was certain that he was unmarriable, he should stop and recognize the unusual opportunity thereby afforded him.
As a single man, the rabbi explained, the young man would be able to live in communities where there are Jews but no Jewish educational and other facilities that an observant family would need. Rabbi Feldman recounted the true story of another man in similar circumstances who had inspired the Jews of such a city for more than forty years.
There are other important roles, Rabbi Feldman continued, for which an unmarried person is particularly well-suited — like fundraising for vital Jewish institutions, which requires much travel.
The young man, Rabbi Feldman explained, should regard the Jewish people qua people as his “wife and children.”
I don’t know what happened to the then-young man, but like to imagine that he became a unique force for good in Klal Yisrael. Whether or not that transpired, though, the advice he was given was gold.
Because each of us has his or her own “world” — a specific role to play in the larger world that includes all other people’s individual worlds. The blasphemer had a truly unique part to play in life — as the sole member of the Jewish people without a tribe. What special opportunity that gave him is unknown. But it surely existed. And, instead of embracing his reality, his world, along with all its inherent challenges but potential, too, he chose to rail against Hashem.
He “left his world” — abandoned his world, the unique world that was his destiny.
I have to wonder about the proximity of the mekallel account and the laws delineated earlier in that same Torah portion, about how cohanim with certain physical blemishes may not serve in the normative cohein role of processing sacrifices on behalf of supplicants. Might the nexus of those pesukim and the story of the mekallel be self-evident?
Whatever the reason for the various disqualifications of cohanim regarding sacrifice-service — and it is certainly nothing obvious — the disqualified cohein might easily be expected to be saddened by, if not curse at, his lot in life.
But his lot it is. “His world,” is simply not the world of Temple service. And if he is wise and embracing of that fact, he will find the special role he, as a cohein unbound from the Temple service, is intended to assume.
As small children, many of us want to be many things at once when we’re grown. But we eventually realize that we can only be either a fireman or a policeman or a ballerina or a scholar or a business tycoon or a writer or a professional baseball or football player – not all of our dreams together. We come to realize, too, that if we, say, lack the requisite physical strength and coordination, baseball and football (and ballerina and fireman) are out, and we must make other choices about what will be “our world.”
We do ourselves the greatest favor by embracing no less willingly — in fact, enthusiastically — the personal world assigned to us by Heaven, no matter how limiting it might seem to us to be.
One of the most important works in Jewish literature is the Mesillas Yesharim, the most accessible book of the brilliant mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707–1746).
He begins that work with the words, “The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service [of G-d] is for a person to clarify and come to realize as truth his obligation in his world.”
Not “in the world.”
“In his world.”
© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Yes, it would be a great name for a punk rock group. But the Adam in the title refers to the original one, the first man. And the eco-fascists are contemporary environmentalists gone wild.
Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden, famously, “to work it and to guard it” (Beraishis, 2:15). The latter phrase is regularly held aloft by some who are deeply concerned with humanity’s effects on nature. Preserving the state of flora, fauna and the landscape, they say, is nothing less than a Biblical mandate.
The Torah does in fact enjoin us elsewhere to not waste useful things, and that prohibition can certainly be applied to wanton destruction of any sort, including of animals and the environment. And we are charged, too, with preserving our health, so efforts to minimize harmful pollution are proper as well from a Jewish perspective.
But the Jewish religious tradition’s take on the words “to guard it” is radically different from conservationists who seek to draft it to support their cause. According to Midrash Rabbah, the “work it” refers to using six days of the week to earn our livings, and the “guard it” refers to ceasing work on Shabbos. The Zohar sees the “work it” as a charge to heed the Torah’s positive commandments, and the “guard it” as a warning to not violate its prohibitions. No true Jewish source interprets the verse as an ecological mandate.
Again, wantonly destroying nature is against the Torah’s guidance. But using nature, even destroying parts of it, for the benefit of humans is, well, precisely what nature is for. Man is no mere part of nature; he, as the creation with free will, is its lord.
Rejecting that reality underlies the ideology of the eco-fascist movement, which considers the supreme political model to be a world in which an authoritarian government requires individuals to sacrifice their own interests to the higher ideal of nature. Man, according to that conviction, is a mere fragment of nature, not its apogee.
Last week, Earth Day, the annual demonstration of support for environmental protection, was commemorated around the world.
Most who mark that day are simple conservationists, promoters of recycling and advocates for legislation to help ensure clean air and water. Some, though, are eco-fascists.
And this year, they celebrated the coronavirus.
As one particularly popular social media posting put it: “Air pollution is slowing down. Water pollution is clearing up. Natural wildlife is returning home. Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.”
Another giddily gushed: “This isn’t an apocalypse. It’s an awakening.”
Others called attention to the wonderful “unexpected side effects” of the virus, like swans and dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice.
Leaving aside the fact that swans regularly appear in some of Venice’s canals and that an accompanying photo of “Venetian” dolphins was in fact taken at a port in Sardinia, hundreds of miles away, the thought of celebrating a deadly germ is mad. No, actually, it’s evil.
Most people don’t realize it, but contemporary radical environmentalism has its roots in an earlier fascism.
The Third Reich’s “Blood and Soil” propaganda campaign explicitly linked “non-Aryan” people on German soil with degradation of the environment. Hitler and his minister Hermann Göring were avid supporters of animal rights and conservation. Germans who violated Nazi animal welfare laws were sent to concentration camps.
Of late, white supremacists have adopted the Nazi “Blood and Soil” slogan, and it was chanted at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, by torch-carrying racists.
The gunman who murdered 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand last year disclosed that he was an eco-fascist concerned about the threats of climate change, overpopulation, and immigration. “They are the same issue,” he wrote. “The environment is being destroyed by overpopulation… Kill the invaders, kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment.”
The shooter who later killed 23 people in the El Paso massacre was connected to a manifesto that lamented the fact that “The environment is getting worse by the year,” and, addressing the public, continued: “Most of y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources.”
Returning to last century’s eco-fascists, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, in his private diaries, described Hitler as someone whose hatred of the Jewish and Christian religions in large part stemmed from the ethical distinction these faiths drew between the value of humans and the value of other animals.
Well, the führer was on to something there. The eco-definition of “to work it and to guard it” stands in stark contrast to the phrases’ true meanings.
Humans are qualitatively different from animals. Imagining otherwise might seem like a harmless conceit. In reality, it is a very dangerous one.
© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran
The 17-year locusts, as many call them, won’t be singing their deafening song this spring on the East Coast. The particular brood (there are several) that we easterners are familiar with, though, is expected to emerge again en
The fearsome-looking insects cause no harm, despite their large size, big red eyes and total disregard of anybody’s personal space. Nor are they locusts. They are cicadas, an entirely different species of bug.
What, though, is a locust, the insect that swarmed by the billions in East Africa earlier this year, devastating large swaths of the countryside? Glad you asked. The answer is very interesting.
Locusts, under normal climatic circumstances, are virtually indistinguishable from garden variety grasshoppers. In fact, they technically are grasshoppers, members of the family Acrididae.
But, when subjected to stress like drought, especially after a rainy season, and crowded together, they morph amazingly into what seem to be very different creatures.
The timid green or brownish bugs living solitary lives become boldly colored, with black markings on a bright yellow background; they become shorter-bodied and stronger. And they swarm in massive numbers. Voracious, they descend in huge dark clouds on fields of vegetation, leaving them bare.
The radical change from an insect version of Dr. Jekyll to one of Mr. Hyde is mediated by a phenomenon that has attracted scientific attention in recent decades: epigenetics.
The term is used to describe characteristics of organisms that come about through the “switching on” of certain genes that do not otherwise express themselves.
While most of us are familiar with the idea that genes are inherited and pass traits from one generation to the next, epigenetics describes how certain genes, due to experiences an organism has undergone, can be chemically marked in a way that activates them.
In 2015, researcher Rachel Yehuda tried to extend the idea to the realm of human psychology, publishing results of a study of a group of Holocaust survivors and making the claim that manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were evident not only in the survivors themselves but in their offspring, ostensibly, she contended, through epigenetic expression.
Others disagree strongly, and assert that any stress disorders that may seem disproportionate in children of survivors are likely the effects of the inadvertent “sharing” of survivors’ own stress, either by exhibiting symptoms of PTSD or repeated recounting of their traumas with their young.
That certainly has occurred. Several speakers at this past February’s Project Witness fourth annual Holocaust Educators’ Conference recounted how their survivor parents pushed them in extreme ways to excel in school, and subjected them to other stressors, sometimes explicitly invoking the Holocaust as the reason for their insistence.
Such parents, of course, can’t be blamed for the effects on them of the indescribable evils they endured, or for any resultant distress caused to their children. But such distress, it seems, has not been uncommon.
Several Shabbosos ago, my wife and I sponsored a Kiddush in a small shul (remember shuls?) in memory of my mother, a”h, whose yahrtzeit fell that week. The custom in that shul is for the Kiddush sponsor to say a few words. There are many, many words I could summon to describe my mother, who was legend in Baltimore for her empathy and kindness, who was an indispensable part of the life of my father, a”h, and of the shul they built together, and who was a kiruv professional decades before the phrase came into existence.
But I chose instead to just share how happy a childhood I had, and why.
My father spent the years of World War II fleeing the Nazis and then sent by the Soviets to Siberia to labor in the taiga, where the temperature in winter would fall to 40 degrees below zero. My mother came to Baltimore from Poland as a young girl before the war but soon suffered the death of her grandmother, the only grandparent who had been part of her life, and then, mere weeks later, her 20-year old brother, who had been studying in yeshivah in New York. Two years later, her father, a respected Rav, passed away at 48. She thought for a while that sitting shivah was just part of the Jewish year-cycle.
Growing up, I knew none of that. Neither of my parents spoke of, or showed any overt signs of, the traumas of their youth years. I only heard about my father’s wartime experiences when I was already married and a father myself, when a tape of a speech he delivered to a group on Yom HaShoah was sent to me by a member of the audience. My mother’s early life losses, likewise, were only revealed to me as an adult.
Some survivors of the Holocaust or other adversities, I know, speak freely of them. Others, like my parents, choose to compartmentalize them, at least up to a point, often as a conscious act, to spare their children the burden of knowing what their parents endured.
As I mentioned, my childhood was entirely happy. And I think I owe that fact, at least partly, to my parents’ reticence and wisdom.
Many parents today, with their children watching, are facing adversities of their own. While expressing deep feelings of pain or frustration openly may afford some immediate release, it’s important to keep in mind always that, whether or not stresses can be bequeathed epigenetically to children not yet born, giving vent to them can certainly have an effect on the young already here.
And all parents want their children to have happy childhoods.
© 2020 Hamodia
[This article didn’t appear in Hamodia, due to lack of space this week.]