Lech Lecha: How To Speak Gently To Family
10/11/2013 - 10:20
Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy

An incident in this week's Torah portion "Lech Lecha" involving Abram (soon to be Abraham) and his nephew Lot provides guidance on healing and sustaining relationships between family members.

"There was a quarrel between the shepherds of Abram's livestock and the shepherds of Lot's livestock. Abram said to Lot "Please, let there not be a quarrel between you and me, or between my shepherds and your shepherds, for we are brothers. Is not the entire land before you? Separate from me, please, if (you go) to the left then I will go right, and if (you go) right, then I will go left." (Genesis 13, 7-9.)

Abraham's words are conciliatory. He twice says “please,” speaking with calm, almost poetic cadence. He acknowledges that a quarrel could develop, rather than ignoring the tension or plunging into a fight.

Abraham applies the term "brother" to his nephew – not uncommon in biblical parlance. Still, it is clear that for Abraham, preserving the relationship is more important than winning the quarrel.

Rather than casting blame, Abraham concentrates on ending the quarrel. He realizes that he and Lot must put some distance between each other, and lets Lot choose which land he will take. The commentary "Ha'ktav v-hakabalah" sees Abraham as willing to take the land of inferior quality, all with a good heart.

The person who acknowledges tension but continues talking calmly to a sibling, who stays far enough away to avoid getting on his brother's nerves yet remains close enough to help when necessary, is a mature person indeed. But maturity isn’t easy.

Parents, children, siblings and friends may remain estranged, despite others' efforts to mend their relationship. Sometimes we need a little help to heal the rift. Interestingly, families of children with a disability often have special access to this kind of help.

Chayim (name changed) is a nonverbal young man with a severe cognitive disability. He enjoys bringing two people together to shake hands.

One day, Chayim approached two men who were not on speaking terms. They shook hands in order not to disappoint him. Then, realizing the pettiness of their feud, they began talking to each other again.

I have noticed that families struggling with disability share deep bonds of understanding. Religious and non-religious Jews, individuals with different lifestyles and even Israelis and Palestinians co-operate to improve the lives of their disabled family members.

These families prove that understanding and good will can not only heal relationships, but also can prevent them from deteriorating. We would do well to follow their example.

A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.

As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah -- the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons --boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at info@yadempowers.org

Comments

I am a lawyer specializing in disability issues: special education law, special needs planning, etc. It is true that having a family member with a disability often brings out the best in people. Sometimes, unfortunately, it brings out the worst, but fortunately such cases are in the minority. Having a child with a disability often forces parents to give up the grand schemes and soaring ambitions they might otherwise have for a child. This can be a good thing, as it causes them to focus on the child's actual needs and qualities. Most families of disabled children say they wouldn't change the past, or their children, for anything.

Ronald Stiskin
Monsey NY

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