Does this sound familiar? Rivky comes home from school at 5 p.m. and she is staaaarving… She needs to eat right away. She skipped lunch in school because it was basically starch and too fattening. Also, in an hour she must go work on the latest G.O. project. Mommy runs to the oven, takes a steaming hot supper out, puts it on a plate, and returns the 9×13 pans back into the oven.
Moishy and Yitzy barge through the door, making their grand entrance from cheder just after 6 p.m., and they, too, are starving. Mommy greets them (hopefully) with a big smile and knows that they must eat pronto or she will have to contend with starving, bickering bears…
At 7:30 p.m., Totty walks through the door. He, too, is starving, and although a bit more refined in his expression, as an experienced Mommy and wife, the mother of the house can instantly detect his need to eat. Besides, he has a full schedule in front of him: a vort and a bar mitzvah where he must show his face tonight before night seder, night seder followed by a chasunah that he must “pop in” to, and so on.
And Mommy? She always and never eats supper. She takes a nibble with Rivky, a tiny bit when trying to force Yitzy to eat his vegetables, and by the time she gives Totty food to eat, she is in the thick of bedtime…
Does this or a variation of this, depending on your age and stage and family situation, sound familiar?
One of the concerning byproducts of our extremely vibrant yet busy lives is the fact that the “family unit” is suffering. If I may be so bold, perhaps the more accurate way of saying this is that the family unit is under assault.
The Punishing Frenetic Pace of Our Lives
It is no secret that frum life is extremely hectic. Large families, different ages and stages, varying needs, social obligations that never seem to end, and parnassah obligations more often than not have both parents out of the house, occupied and under pressure for many hours of the day. The lives of children and teens are also extremely busy, with long school hours, tons of extracurricular activities, Friday afternoon and Motzoei Shabbos programs, homework and more homework, and the list goes on. There is also the constant communication with others that infringes on everything – regular phone calls, texts, emails…
We are BUSY!
During the year, it seems that families, even exemplary families, have less and less availability to just spend time together. There is too much going on to even take a few minutes to sit around the same table for a half hour and eat supper together. Forget about actually sitting, playing a game, or having a talk.
Indeed, even in the secular world, among those who are still thinking, the breakdown of the “nuclear family” is a subject that is causing much angst. The breakdown of the nuclear family – father, mother, and children living under the same roof – is real, and it is affecting us as well. Those who have not been silenced by the “high priests” of political correctness that dictate which subjects are worthy of discussion and which are not have been agonizing over the family breakdown, the fact that families do not get together the way they used to, don’t eat together regularly, don’t play or spend recreational time with each other, and in general live separate lives, even while living under the same roof.
Separate Lives Under the Same Roof
Many people in our own frum communities have told me that what were once regular interactions between family members no longer exist. Brothers and sisters sitting in different rooms sometimes prefer texting each other to convey whatever they want to say rather than expending the few ounces of energy to go and actually talk to one another. There are parents who text to their children in the next room that it is time for supper. Even without these examples that an old guy like me thinks are bizarre, there are plenty of others who clearly point out that the loving family unit – the camaraderie and even the bickering – and the rhythm of normal family life are being assailed, and one of the main perpetrators is our busy, hectic lives. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that the outcomes and outgrowth of this loss are real, affecting our families and especially the children and teens.
Many years ago, when parents asked Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky whether they should send their high school-aged boys to dorm in yeshiva, he said that if the family situation is a good one, it is better to be home. Yes, there may be more opportunities for complete immersion in yeshiva, but a bochur should be part of a family. He should see how an ehrliche, Yiddishe husband and wife interact. He should interrelate with his siblings, because later in life, all these experiences will contribute to his shleimus as a Yid and his ability to navigate relationships with others.
I wonder if in today’s hectic family life, Rav Yaakov would say the same. Yes, that is how difficult things are today.
I have spoken to many people about this, and the message being given over is that if not for the fact that, boruch Hashem, we have Shabbos and Yom Tov built into our schedules, and families are “forced” to eat together and interact with one another, it is becoming rarer and rarer for brothers and sisters and even parents and children to interact with each other in a meaningful manner.
(By the way, even Shabbos is under assault. More and more people have social obligations –Shabbos sheva brachos, bar mitzvahs, aufrufs, and getaways – held far away from their homes that they must attend, leaving their children behind at home…)
What is the Solution?
The question is easier asked than answered, but in order to find a solution, we must first be cognizant of the problem. We have outlined the problem: the nuclear family is slowly being dismantled to the extent that people living in the same house often don’t have much to do with each other. They pass each other in the hallway, they may fight over the shower or peer into the refrigerator at the same time, but the deep bonding that was once a given in family life can no longer be taken for granted.
We must do whatever we can to be mechazeik the kesher, strengthening the bond between family members. Young people tend to focus far more on friendships with outsiders than they do with family members. It seems far more enticing to go out with friends than to go out with your “boring” family. It seems much more fun to shmooze on the phone with a friend about class politics than it does to converse with your siblings.
It isn’t. All these friends will come and go. They will be part of your life and eventually disappear into the background. Family is forever.
A friend of mine once shared the following story: Once upon a time, place cards at chasunos were a big deal. Delineating who would sit with whom and at which table was a big headache for baalei simcha. You wanted your guests to be comfortable sitting with people they knew. A friend of mine remembers that a few days before his chasunah, his parents were working on the seating chart for the wedding and he was similarly busy ensuring that his friends would all be seated properly. He was much more focused on friends than on family. His uncle, a wise Holocaust survivor, went over and told him, “Moishele, listen to me. I want to tell you something. Im yirtzeh Hashem, in a year or two, you will make a bris. Trust me: Only half of those friends who you are so worried about will be at the bris. When, be’ezras Hashem, you make a bar mitzvah, if even two or three of them will attend, you will be lucky. And when you marry off your child, it is possible that not one of them will be in attendance! That is the way life is. People move on. But you know who will be at the bris, the bar mitzvah, and the chasunah? Your family! Your uncles, aunts, and cousins. Think about that and think about which relationships are more worth cultivating…”
Yes, all of us, parents and children, must make a conscious effort to actively invest time into forging bonds – sitting together, shmoozing together, playing games together, going on outings together, and vacationing together.
Part of that is trying to tone down our social lives, especially the aspects that infringe on the family unit.
Sukkos: The Optimum Opportunity
In truth, Yom Tov, and especially the Yom Tov of Sukkos, is the optimum time to strengthen the family unit. For those of us who still celebrate Sukkos at home, it is a Yom Tov that really lends itself to bonding with family. We can sit at unhurried Yom Tov seudos in the cozy sukkah, eating together, singing together, sharing stories and divrei Torah, and talking about our lives in a non-pressured, unhurried atmosphere. Chol Hamoed seudos, whether breakfast, supper or both, can also be leveraged for this. But there is one tenai: You have to want to do it and recognize how vital it is.
Sukkos has also become very commercialized. There are all kinds of enticing Chol Hamoed outings that young people would rather enjoy with their friends. There are Simchas Bais Hashoeivahs and “action” taking place every night. There are films for girls that have become almost obligatory. All of these take away from the beauty of the unhurried family time that people need to truly bond. Yes, I know that it sounds “veppy” (or whatever word is currently in vogue to connote this idea) to spend time with your brother, sister, or – gasp! – mother, father or grandparents, but think about it this way: In ten or twenty years, will it really make a difference that you went to that “happening” Simchas Bais Hashoeivah with music and all kinds of drinks? Will it really make a difference if you saw another film on Chol Hamoed that made you cry?
What will make a difference? If you enjoy a real relationship with your brothers and sisters. If you can reminisce about the vacations that you took together. These are what create lifelong bonds of true ahavah, loyalty, and devotion.
Let me conclude with a thought from the great Rav Shmuel Aharon Yudelevitz (father of the maggid, Rav Shabsai). He asked: Sukkos is Zeman Simchaseinu? Shouldn’t that be Pesach? On Pesach, we eat while leaning like bnei chorin, and we eat roasted meat from the Korban Pesach like kings, but Sukkos? On Sukkos, we go out into a flimsy sukkah at the mercy of the elements.
He answered that during the year, we are all so busy with the rat race called life that we have no time to even think. We made a million and we are already looking for the second million. There is no time to think, let alone be b’simcha. What did Hashem do? In His mercy, he gave us Sukkos. He gave us seven days to leave our “permanent” existence, the rat race, and sit in the sukkah exposed to everything. He even gave us Koheles to read on Chol Hamoed to put everything into perspective and help us realize that the only thing that gives us joy is doing Hashem’s commandments. He gave us the opportunity to get off the treadmill and just sit in the sukkah with Hashem and with close family. That is when we truly experience simcha. Not the “simcha” of another deal or another ritzy vacation. Rather, it is the simcha of nagilah v’nismecha Boch, rejoicing in Hashem and the close people Hashem has given to us, our parents and our siblings.
So, my dear friends, if you really want to experience simcha this Sukkos, stay with family. Bond with family, eat unhurried seudos, and sing together. Go to one less Simchas Bais Hashoeivah, go to one less film, and decide that you would rather take a “veppy” trip with family, where you can spend time together, rather than some super exciting trip that will probably end in nausea either way.
You won’t regret it, not now and certainly not in twenty years from now.
Try it. Really!