“Great,” he mumbles just before starting his brochah acharonah.
Scene 2: It’s suppertime. The tired husband comes home after a long day, famished. He walks into the house and, to his chagrin, he doesn’t smell anything cooking on the stove. He tries to control the edge in his voice while asking, “What happened to supper?”
The wife, already feeling guilty for not having been able to make it, because things were out of control at home, detects the edge in his voice as being far more acute then he even meant it. She immediately becomes defensive, snapping back about all the challenges she had that day. The husband, who is still tired and hungry, would have to be a real gibor ruach and baal mussar to be able to extinguish that flame before it becomes something that neither of them wanted or even intended.
Scene 3: It’s suppertime. The tired husband comes home after a long day, famished. As he enters the house, ready to greet his wife, he notices her at the kitchen counter, cordless phone tucked between her shoulder and her ear. She nods perfunctorily and, with her eye, indicates that he can help himself to supper simmering on the stove as she continues the telephone discussion.
The Common Denominators
What are the common denominators in all of these scenarios? Firstly, they are all very common scenes. Scenes such as these – with slight variations – are constantly being played out in homes everywhere. They are not necessarily indicative of serious sholom bayis issues. Nevertheless, one thing that they all have in common is that knowingly or otherwise, all of them indicate a degree of lack of respect or taking a spouse for granted.
In Scene 1, the unsaid words of the husband are, “I have been learning/working hard all day. The fact that supper is waiting for me is the way it should be. Of course, I have to say thank you and I will, but after all is said and done, it’s her job. That is what is expected of her.”
For the wife’s part, she knows that she is supposed to be making supper and is glad to do it. She also knows that, yes, he usually says thanks, although she wonders if it is just out of habit or whether he has thought more into it. She also tried a different twist to her recipe that day and was waiting for his reaction, comment and compliment. Only when she sees that he is about to make a brochah acharonah does she feel that she has no choice but to ask him how he liked it. She really, really wanted him to comment without having to ask him. As for him, instead of detailing what he liked about it or complimenting her, he is yotzeh with a mechanical comment that “it was great…”
No one did anything terribly wrong, but a bit more thought would have shown deep respect between them. In addition, it is often not feasible, but if it would have been possible, the wife being able to sit down and eat with the husband would have been nice too.
In Scene 2, as well, both parties were right and wrong. The way to ensure that things would have never escalated would have been if respect were shown on both parts. When the husband came in, he should have perhaps first inquired how the day went and allowed his wife to unburden herself. Then he could have either offered to go buy himself supper or find something in the house. As for the wife, there is no reason to go on the defensive and snap back, especially without any real provocation. Again, with a showing of genuine respect for each other, it never would have happened.
In Scene 3, even though the wife prepared an exemplary supper for her husband – it was hot and waiting on the stove when he came home – the fact that she could not bring herself to detach herself from the phone showed not only a lack of common decency, but a total lack of respect for the most important person in her life. About such an interaction we can paraphrase the posuk in Mishlei that states, “A meal comprised of just vegetables that is given with love is better than a meal made out of the best meat but given begrudgingly.”
Taming a Wild Donkey
The reason the above scenes were described and analyzed in such length here is simply to emphasize that if parents want to somehow be able to raise respectful, civil children in this difficult generation, when mentchlichkeit and civility seem like quaint, outdated items, the parents themselves must try their utmost to interact with each other with maximum respect, civility, mentchlichkeit, and even nobility. Certainly, it is hard, and unless both spouses are malochim, there will always be setbacks. Nevertheless, the ultimate foundation for raising civil kids is simply showing them on a regular basis what civility and mentchlichkeit are. It is not easy. Interacting with a spouse in such a way despite the hectic daily grind of our lives is an avodah gedolah, but in this case there are no shortcuts. When kids see the beauty and respect of healthy interaction between husband and wife, they automatically learn and absorb appropriate behavior.
Over the years, I have had occasion to be in the homes of some of my rabbeim and roshei yeshiva. I observed how they interacted at home. I saw such nobility, such respect, and such good cheer. I saw respect.
As parents and teachers, we must be cognizant of the words of the posuk in Sefer Iyov that says, “Ayir pereh adam yevaleid – A person is born like a wild donkey.” The baalei mussar explain that a person has many characteristics like a wild donkey, which is untamed, brash, and even violent. Our job is to take that wild donkey and transform it into a ben adam, a mentch. As parents, it is not an easy task, but it is our task. We ourselves must serve as the greatest example of mentchlichkeit and derech eretz.
The Primacy of Derech Eretz: It is Not Extra-Curricular
Derech eretz is not an extra-curricular project that is an afterthought and should be treated less importantly than academic excellence. It is so vital that it must be on the front burner throughout the day, at home and in school. Today’s obsessive focus on cultivating self-esteem in our children has, in many ways, done them a great disservice. We have become so accustomed to telling them that they are great and amazing that many of them begin to think of themselves as such without even engaging in any of the hard work associated with becoming great.
In regard to derech eretz, we have no choice but to remain relentlessly focused on ensuring that our children exhibit proper derech eretz in an age-appropriate way. Derech eretz is not some goody-goody project, but rather a foundation of chinuch, especially in our times, when all semblance of mentchlichkeit and derech eretz has gone by the wayside.
The Dangers Inherent in ‘Big-City’ Living
One more suggestion, my dear friends, that I am afraid may be viewed as somewhat controversial but could be another important aid in raising civil children:
The Gemara teaches, “Yeshivas kerachim koshah – Living in large cities is difficult.” A big city with a big city mentality can often have a detrimental effect on our middos. Unfortunately, virtually all major communities are located either in big cities or in big city proximity, where the big city mentality permeates. In small cities, strangers greet each other and talk to each other in a far more relaxed way than in other places. The frenzied pace of big city life combined with the fact that to get ahead one must fight for scarce resources has a tremendous impact on us. Fighting for a parking spot, for a lot upon which to build a house, and for a place in a school has a terrible impact on our middos. The major Jewish centers located in the tri-state area all suffer from this scourge.
It is pervasive and affects us all, especially our children.
Thus, if you are a young family and have the option of moving to an out-of-town community, perhaps that will help. Aside from the fact that inhabiting other communities outside the tri-state area will spread the spiritual wealth beyond the big city enclaves, living in a society where one doesn’t have to battle for everything and where old-time values of civility and mentchlichkeit are, at least to some degree, still in existence may also help in our mandate and shlichus from Hashem to raise mentchen for children.