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7 Av 5763 - August 5, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
The Sensitivity Gap

by Rav Yechezkel Norman

In the sixties and seventies I remember a term that was constantly used to define an apparent phenomenon. It needed to be understood and classified especially if some brave soul wanted to attempt to improve that situation. It was "The Generation Gap."

This term explained why the younger generation living in America was not following the paved road of their frum European parents and grandparents. Their orthodoxy was loosening up as they began forging relationships with the new world. "The land of the free." They were filled with hope to "make it" with a successful career in the land of opportunities.

Today's hardships though, are different. Yiddishkeit is solidly established in many communities internationally. Frum families from all walks of life, whether it is the working class or the Kollel people, and from the respected to the simple, are all-too-often experiencing the pain when their children or grandchildren leave the paved road of their elders. This time it is in spite of the academic education and prominent positions their parents may hold. Another "generation gap," another "communication gap" -- but this time around it lacks definition.

What's wrong with the yellow brick road? Why isn't the message crossing over to the kids? This topic is broad and has been discussed for over a decade. It's the story of "Children/Teens at Risk."

Explanations -- such as the attraction of external influences relayed through all forms of media and the outreach programs sponsored by the entertainment industries advertising new lifestyles -- were given. Perhaps it is also a lack of love or simply negative vibes from well-meaning parents and teachers who may have misjudged situations and reacted wrongly that turned these kids off.

Besides the above contributing factors, I would like to discuss a point that may help stop a forming gap or may even help bridge an existing one. I will call it the "Sensitivity Gap." If this idea is understood well, it can yield amazing results.

Let me explain this concept with two examples. A couple was going shopping with their seventeen-year-old son. He bought a Danish and began eating it as they were walking in the street. His father objected, saying it is not respectable to eat in the street. His son said he didn't feel that there was anything wrong. Also, he added, "Many other people eat like this, so why are you making an issue out of this?"

He continued to eat his Danish, hoping that his father would back off. But his father started getting angry and said loudly that it is disgusting to eat like this in public, it's eating like a dog! The son got even more upset at this reaction and told his father to leave him alone. His father's anger escalated -- until the boy finally threw the Danish on the ground and grunted as he walked away from his parents.

Another example: An eleven-year-old boy was having difficulties getting up for davening on Shabbos morning. His parents tried all kinds of tactics, hoping to convince him to get up for shul - - but to no avail. The father, who began wondering that perhaps he was pushing his child too much, spoke to a mashgiach about this. The mashgiach reasoned that by this age he should be getting up for tefilloh already. He advised the father not to let his child play around anymore, since the time has come for him to go to shul.

Well, the parents felt they got `a green light' to use force to get him out of bed, since they had tried many other things already. Soon this boy was getting water splashed on his face and was physically pulled out of bed. The boy had to get up, but he made sure to move at an irritating, turtle- slow pace.

Eventually, he would arrive at shul at Chazoras Hashatz or, on the better days, at Borchu, with his father very displeased and swallowing his anger. Nonetheless, the parents felt that this was their only recourse in order to fulfill their parental chinuch responsibilities.

Any parent of children reading these two scenarios and identifying with them, I'm sure has comments on them. But objectively speaking, when examining both instances it's clear that the parents were assuming that their child has a level of sensitivity that is comparable with theirs about the issues. Otherwise, why would they deal with him in such a fashion?

Yet in truth the "Sensitivity Gap" between them is wider than the Grand Canyon due, at least, to the many reasons mentioned earlier. The younger generation doesn't have and never developed a variety of sensitivities regarding topics that are taken for granted by their grandparents, parents and even some childhood friends.

Let's examine the two cases under observation. First, what is so bad about eating a Danish in the street? In masechta Kiddushin (40b) the gemora says as follows: The Rabbis taught in a Beraissa, "Someone who eats in the shuk (commonly translated as a marketplace) is compared to a dog. Others say, he is disqualified from giving testimony." Rashi explains the reason for his disqualification is that, in spite of the fact that he is a religious, observant Jew, "since he doesn't care about his own dignity, he will not be ashamed to cheapen himself (i.e. without shame -- SMA, that is, he may accept a bribe) and become disqualified."

The gemora teaches us how degrading it is to eat "in the shuk." This idea is in fact brought down in the Shulchan Oruch as halacha.

There are technical details about applying this halacha but they are certainly not the issue here. I want to focus on the disparity of sensitivities that exists between parent and child.

The father's reprimand should be transmitting a message of refinement and dignity. But before reasonable communication begins there has to be common ground, a conduit to carry the message to the other side. The son obviously lacks the feelings of dignity discussed in the halochoh. He may actually feel, to his parents' shock, a sense of pride or an expression of self- worth from eating in the street as he sees many other "normal" people do. He doesn't want to feel different from them. The gap between him and his parents is as massive as the Grand Canyon.

Doesn't the Mishna at the end of masechta Sota state that prior to the coming of Moshiach the face of the generation will resemble the face of a dog? No shame! They take pride in publicly doing and advertising disgusting things. While frum people pay extra in order not to be in places of indecency in hotels, airlines, and the like, the secular society pays more to be there. The entertainment world thrives on various forms of indecency, especially seducing the youth.

The son who doesn't share the father's values because he may have been unduly influenced by the secular society needs to be dealt with from an entirely new vantage point. The father can't expect his son to immediately respond to his own sensitivities, as strong as they may be, since a major gap already exists.

Regarding the second scenario, instead of the father finding out at what age his child needs to attend shul, he should investigate why his son doesn't want to go. Just pushing him to do something he doesn't want to do could create negative energy and makes it that much more difficult for him to `come around.'

Chazal teach us (Brochos 6b), "Matters that are at the loftiest part of the world, yet people cheapen their value. This is tefilloh." In Chazal's rebuke lies a fundamental insight how people relate to tefilloh. Why is tefilloh so lax with us?

It's because people don't feel its importance and as such they don't give it its proper worth and it becomes a burden three times a day. Even in Chazal's times, people were numbed to davening, and we have not necessarily improved on that.

We're back to our Sensitivity Gap. Parents may realize how much they need Hashem's help for a successful life and how many things can go wrong and all the thanks they must extend to Hashem for all they received already.

Can a standard child be expected to feel this? His world is fun and playing with his friends. Tefilloh doesn't naturally attract him. Perhaps his poor understanding of the Hebrew text takes away his interest in shul. Maybe he can't sit so long or has a short concentration span as a lot of children have.

Instead of letting the anger increase, the parents should actually be mechanech their children as they develop his interest in davening. They will have given him tools for life by developing a sensitivity for the higher goals of Jewish living.

I hope my point about the Sensitivity Gap of today's times was presented clearly. This idea can be applied to many other areas as well, as with clothing styles that lack tznius, non-refined behavior, conduct, and language, and the like. Youth needs areas of development in their sensitivities, and our sensitivities also need to be developed for them. May Hashem help us raise our children so that the gaps are bridged.

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