Changing the Scenery
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January 8, 2012
It’s a tried and true phenomenon.
Almost every single time I’m at a basketball court or soccer field to watch my children, I witness people that are generally kind, pleasant and rational transform before my very eyes into aggressive, belligerent and hostile people. And that’s just the parents who come to watch the kids! When adults themselves are playing…things can turn downright nasty!
It’s not hard to understand. As we switch environments, be it from our home or office or school, into the environment of the sports arena, it’s very difficult to maintain the same persona. We behave one way while dressed in a suit and tie, quite another when dressed in sweats and sneakers.
The Righteousness of Yosef
This is the significance of the praise Yosef is singled out for at the beginning of this week’s Parsha. The Torah lists by name eleven of the twelve sons of Yaakov amongst the 70 souls that descended to Egypt. As for the twelfth son, the Torah tells us, “And Yosef was already in Egypt” (Shmos 1:5).
Rashi comments that we are very well aware of the fact that Yosef was already in Egypt. The Torah is only telling us this to highlight Yosef’s greatness: Even though he was in Egypt, far from the warm, spiritually nurturing environment of his father’s home, he was still the same Yosef. The same Yosef who shepherded his father’s flock was the same Yosef who wallowed in an Egyptian prison. That same Yosef was challenged by the licentiousness of Potifar’s wife, and was still the same Yosef who became the exalted and potentially haughty king over all of Egypt. But through it all, he remained true to his righteousness, unaffected by the various environments and challenges he faced.
Our Children’s Challenge
As parents, it’s important to recognize that our children are not Yosef – yet. It requires wisdom and patience to know how to respond to our children as they interact in different environments. They might behave one way when they’re at home, and quite another way when at a friend’s house, or at school, or summer camp. That’s actually normal. It doesn’t mean they’re trying to fool us or that they’re schizophrenic. Yosef is singled out for his righteousness. He was able to maintain the same piety through all of his different circumstances without slipping even a bit. Our children might not be so righteous at their tender ages.
And we as parents have our own challenge — and our challenge is almost the exact opposite of Yosef. Yosef had to maintain the righteousness learned in his father’s home even while out in the world; we have to maintain the persona from our workplace and bring it home.
We would never speak to a colleague who leaves the milk out in the break room, “How many times do I have to tell you to put the milk away?” And we would never yell condescendingly at a secretary who asks us a question when we’re on the phone, “Don’t you see I’m on the phone?” Nor would we mutter to a client who forgets an umbrella in our office, “When will you ever learn?” We’re civil and polite.
But when we come home after a long day at work, and we’re tired and grumpy, we will say those things to our children. We will speak to our own kids with sharp words and in a tone that we would never use in the outside world.
There’s an oft quoted teaching in the name of Hillel (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:5), “Do not judge your friend until you have reached his place.” It is generally understood that “his place” refers to the same “place in life” — the same trials and challenges that your friend has experienced. Until you yourself have experienced them, do not be quick to judge someone else, teaches Hillel, for you yourself might behave in the exact same way.
Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249 – c. 1310) records a novel approach to this teaching. When you first meet a person, and he seems to be nice, kind and pleasant, don’t judge him so fast. Reserve judgment until you reach “his place”: his home, his own environment. That’s where you can judge who he really is.
We will not be judged in the Heavenly Court on how our colleagues at work perceived us. There, indeed we might be kind, patient, and fair. However, we will be judged on the way our children (and spouses) experienced us. We will be measured by how we responded to those we were closest to, and whether we were kind and pleasant and patient with them — even at the end of a long day at work, or on a tiring Shabbos afternoon. That’s where we have to muster all of the energy we can to speak to our children in the same manner and with the same tone that we would speak to a stranger on the street or a colleague at work.
Have a Good Shabbos.