So much in life is about listening, and so much about listening is hearing the unspoken.
About a month after I graduated high school, three Jewish boys were born together. Then they were separated into adoptive homes, where the adults and obviously the boys had no idea about their siblings till close to manhood. Recently, a film has been made about their lives- Three Identical Strangers. There are numerous studies about how connected twins and triplets are in a multitude of ways. Some studies are open and non-invasive. Others seem closer to Mengele type experiments. I leave it to viewers of this film which at first was joyous and then tragic, to decide where the story of these three brothers fall.
Like many viewers and reviewers, I was appalled by the unfolding of the story. After the exhilarating reunion, the darker background and implications were all the more disheartening, especially finding out that the adoption agency was a Jewish one. ‘This is not’, I wanted to shout out in the theatre, ‘how Jewish children should be raised!’ As Rabbi David Rosen writes, children are regarded as the hope of the future in every society, yet among the Jewish people this concept is enhanced by the view that children are a Divine trust and guarantors of the future. Judaism views childhood as a period of purity, joy, and beauty to be valued and cherished. The Talmud states that “childhood is a garland of roses” and that “the very breath of children is free of sin.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 152, 119).
Considering the above perspective of the worth of children, we come across a particularly unnerving section of Torah. In the middle of the book of Deuteronomy, we read about the law of a ‘ben sorer u’moreh’, a stubborn and rebellious son. In brief, the law is as follows: If a boy around bar mitzvah age is found to have a gluttonous taste for meat and wine, and is stealing money from his parents to feed his habit, his parents may bring him to court. If found guilty, he is executed! However, the actual criteria for such a conviction were way too complex to enable this law to be carried out.
A few of the conditions from the Talmud: If the father was willing to accuse him, or the mother not willing, or vice versa, or if either of them were significantly handicapped, or if they gave him conflicting messages, the sentence is void. Furthermore, the boy must exhibit not just a habit but a strong addiction to eating a certain measure of meat, and drinking a good amount of Italian wine. Then he progresses to stealing money to feed his habit, he eats away from home and stands on the crossroads to assail people so he can maintain and eventually amplify his addiction. The justification for the verdict is that he has embarked on an escalating ride of no return and will end up killing. As the sages express it, ‘Better for him to die in innocence (before committing murder) than to die guilty.’
Nevertheless, the Talmud tells us that this scenario did not and could never happen. If so, why even bring it up? The Talmud responds, ‘drosh v’kabel sechar=learn it and receive a reward.’ But notice that the sages don’t accuse only the boy. They claim that he cannot be prosecuted because of many factors in his parents’ dynamics. The Torah’s wording is: ‘he does not listen to the voice of the father and the voice of his mother,’ implying, say the rabbis, that if they influence him with inconsistent and contradictory values, then they contribute to his maladjustment, even if unintentional.
Of course, in the film there was intentional malice on the part of the agency and the professionals. As a New York Times reviewer puts it, the director, Tim Wardle, ‘fits together a grim story of hubristic doctors and their grotesquely unprincipled enablers who played with human lives in the name of science.’ Sadly, the adopting parents were also kept in the dark and probably did the best they could. The agency claimed they would have had a hard time finding a home for all 3 triplets so they had to split them up. But the choice was not even offered. In the film, one heartbreaking moment was when one of the adoptive fathers who all the boys later agreed was the most affable and loving, said ‘I would have taken all three.’ That the Jewish adoption agency and the doctors who ran the later experiments, withheld from everyone that they were triplets, and that they were subjects of experiments, must have been a significant factor in later distress and suffering, both individually and for their families. Though the triplets were victims in their early years and indeed were deservedly joyous during their times of reunion, they didn’t seem to have a spiritual structure that would help them cope and be grateful for their present of finally being reunited, without feeling bitter about their past.
What is a Torah outlook toward early childhood challenges? The common feature with both the triplets and the rebellious son, is that all children come into the world as distinct beings- the nature factor- and are also placed in contexts not of their choosing-the nurture factor. The sages insist that everything is in the hands of heaven except the reverence of heaven. This means, as Victor Frankel so eloquently insisted, our attitudinal choices are up to us no matter the circumstances of our birth and background.
But this doesn’t mean that our range of choices are without limits. We are also taught ‘according to the effort is the reward.’ A 20th century rabbi, Rav Eliyahu Dessler, bases a now famous analogy on this principle. He postulates that we all stand somewhere on a differential rung in ladder of choices. Our range of choice is framed by the nature-nurture dimensions which came to us beyond our control. But within that range there are a multitude of choices that can be identified as right or wrong based on the inner struggle between our Yetzer Harah and Yetzer Hatov, our inclination toward evil, i.e., self-centeredness or toward a higher value of good beyond ourselves. We are not expected to reach further than our capability of choice but we are also not given much credit for an ethical choice that is too easy for us.
Certainly, it is wonderful for a child to be raised without any obstacles to optimum growth, both from nature or nurture, but our purpose on earth is to rise above or even transform those obstacles, and to work with the unique individual hand we are dealt. And here is where some religious scaffolding can be invaluable. Both the parents and the children can benefit from a regular practice rooted in traditional values.
In the rebellious son scenario, one perceptive commentary about the phrase ‘he didn’t listen to the voice of his father and his mother’ explains that the child did not hear his father and mother expressing genuine words of Torah and prayer and compassion for others. He didn’t hear their cries to G-d so they didn’t hear his cries for love and guidance. And at least from the film, it seems like the boys were suffering without truly being heard.
I’m not sure what continues to tug at me about the film, but I think it has something to do with my own youthful feelings of grief and abandonment. When I was around 11, after my father died, I began stealing comic books. I felt I couldn’t survive without them. I was an only child and couldn’t communicate very well with my mother, so I had no one to turn to and instead acted out. Maybe comics were my search for an alternate life with clearly defined villains and heroes. In those days, the comics came three in a clear plastic wrap. You could see the comics in the front and back of the plastic, but not the middle one. When I got home and opened them, I remember being very indignant when the middle comic was not to my liking! Talk about Jewish Chutzpah! This theft phase, thank G-d, didn’t last very long, but there were and probably still are, ways that I continue to express my pain over this early loss and loneliness. I know personally that I would not have survived without a meaningful Torah education.
Almost inevitably, many children go through feelings of abandonment. They may cry out inside, but no one hears. They may act out in different ways, but no one really listens or understands. The case of the triplets as well as that of the rebellious son, can help people to realize what a difficult and serious responsibility it is to raise a child. This responsibility requires both unconditional love and appropriate discipline. One without the other would be remiss.
There is a well-known Hassidic story about a Rebbe who chastised his son for being so engrossed in his learning that he didn’t hear the crying of his baby in another room. The grandfather chided: ‘One must never be so busy to not hear the cry of a child.’
Another favorite story of mine is the rabbi whose young son delighted in listening to his father blow the shofar every day of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. However, as is the custom to refrain from blowing the day right before, the toddler could not understand why his father didn’t blow, even though he left it out for the holiday. The baby started to wail and point to the shofar. His father tried everything to console him but the cries kept escalating. In desperation and concerned for the baby’s health, the father picked up the shofar and blew, much to the child’s relief. Afterward, the father called out to G-d. ‘Please, I know I shouldn’t have blown today, but my baby was so distraught. You G-d promised us that before the redemption, a great shofar will be blown to gather in your people before the redemption. In our times, your children too are inconsolable so please please blow that shofar now!’
As we approach the High Holidays, it would be helpful to focus on the repeated refrain in the prayers, ‘You are our father, and we are your children.’ On one hand, we want G-d to be as compassionate as possible, but we also know that G-d is here to correct us and guide us if/when we step out of line- rather like an ideal parent. Without the concept behind ‘Days of Awe,’ we would do what feels good in the moment, and can end up spiritually lost, like a rebellious son or a torn asunder triplet.
I used to have reoccurring dreams of running up and down an outdoor fire escape to the women’s balcony to hear the shofar being blown in a shul I used to attend in Boston on Rosh Hashanah. To me that was the most mystical experience of the year and to this day I often shiver with the vibrations of the shofar.
Perhaps the sounds of the Shofar, as in the prayer before blowing, Blessed are You…who had commanded us to LISTEN to the voice of the shofar, is telling us to listen to the message that the shofar conveys. Ultimately G-d can transcend the verdict of strict judgement, and move to the throne of compassion, not just for individual suffering but to bring to a world in anguish, a speedy and complete redemption.