Friday, December 20, 2013

A Word from the Director: 12/20/2013

Since many of the boys we deal with have their own set of challenges, it is often hard for them to see outside of themselves and the issues in their own lives. I, therefore, work to raise awareness as I hear either negative or positive responses to a friend’s mishap or struggle. In general, the children of this generation are growing up in relative comfort, yet at the same time know of unspeakable tragedies in their communities and the world around them. How can we effectively teach entitled kids in an increasingly narcissistic society (as Rabbi Brander has called it: the iPod generation, focus on the “I”) to not become jaded, but rather to empathize with their friend and feel their pain?

Here are some evidence-based suggestions for teaching empathy:
•    Make a happy home. When a child feels safe and happy at home, knowing their parents love them, they are less self-centered. When their own needs are met, they are more likely to think of others before themselves.
•    Give service. One activity for any age to build empathy is to give service. Have your child bake cookies and take them to someone who lives alone. Visit a nursing home and bring a smile to lonely older people. Have an older child offer to help a neighbor with their children – without receiving payment. Take them to volunteer at a food bank or soup kitchen, and have them see what it’s like to not have the full pantry and refrigerator they are blessed with at home.
•    Spending time with animals. Another great thing for children is to have experience with animals. As they are forced to practice soft, slow touch with the animal (or there will be an immediate negative response from it) the behaviors of gentleness, patience, and kindness are reinforced.
•    Encourage them. Positive reinforcement of empathy is also helpful.
•    Take advantage of teaching moments. Role play. Sometimes children get in trouble because they find it hard to control their emotions and to understand the feelings of others. If you can seize those opportunities to explain to the child how the other party may be feeling, and suggest an appropriate response, you will have done your child a great service. This is as simple as asking, "How would you feel if someone did that to you?"

In this week’s parsha we are introduced to Moshe Rabbeinu. There is no greater model of someone who so clearly feels the pain of his brothers. Imagine a prince living in the comfort and luxury of the king’s palace, with whatever amenities they had in Egypt back then, and physically unaffected by the slavery of those around him, making the effort to go out and see the pain of his enslaved brethren. The midrash tells us that he even offered his own shoulders to help as many Jews as possible with their work, and actually experienced their pain! He also convinced Paroh to give them a day off each week so as to help alleviate some of their suffering. In his role as a shepherd, Moshe, and later David Hamelech, were able to show their deep concern for each and every individual: a characteristic which is a prerequisite to being a Jewish leader.

This middah of noticing, caring for, and trying to lessen the pain of another, is one that we must strive to emulate and teach our children. We must try to see things from someone else’s perspective and attempt to understand their needs, worries, and pain. We need to become good listeners and offer comforting and encouraging words. We can't always do anything tangible to solve the problem, but the fact that my friend knows that I share the ache of his burdens helps him tremendously. He knows that he doesn't face his problems alone. As the saying goes, “A burden shared is a burden halved.” Included in sharing my friend's burden is the act of praying for him. The gemara in Brachos 12b goes so far as to say that whoever can daven for another and doesn’t is called a sinner. Even if we cannot contribute much financially, or don’t have the time to physically help someone who is suffering, can we not at least take two minutes to offer a prayer on their behalf?

Rav Shimon Shkop explains that a “gadol” is a great person who expands his definition of self to include others. He is not merely an individual – himself – but rather part of a larger whole and consequently he becomes “gadol” – bigger. There was a terrible fire in the city of Brisk that left half the city destroyed and hundreds of Jews homeless. The rav of the town, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, promptly moved out of his house and slept on a bench in the shul. When asked why he was doing so if his own house remained untouched by the calamity, he exclaimed, “How can I sleep in a comfortable bed when so many people do not have a roof over their heads.” That is a gadol; a leader of the generation. That is empathy.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

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