How kind of you to slow down and stop at the ‘zebra’ so that I can cross the road safely. My day has started well. I make eye contact and exchange small talk with the cashier as I buy my snack. He jokes with the next customer, who cheers up and is then much more upbeat with her work colleagues than she was yesterday. They do well in their tasks as a result, and she praises them; they go home happy and don’t snap at their partners or children. You may not know it, but your tiny act of generosity this morning has prevented a dog being kicked and a toy getting broken this evening. Our every action impacts on the feelings and behaviour of those we encounter, and can have far-reaching consequences.
Meanwhile, Jonny’s parents have been asked to come and see his teacher. Jonny has been observed being repeatedly unkind to some of the smaller children. In the course of their conversation, it transpires that Jonny himself has often been the victim of bullying in the past. Recently he has started to stand up for himself and retaliate, but this new pattern is different – understandable perhaps, but not acceptable.
The psychotherapist Alice Miller offered the following insight in her writing:
“Disregard for those who are smaller and weaker is … defense against a breakthrough of one’s own feelings of helplessness …”
The website ‘Very Well Family’ has a section about “bully-victims” and comments:
“Most people would assume that a victim of bullying would instead have empathy for others and not inflict pain on those that are weaker. But this is not always the case. …they are attempting to regain a sense of power in their lives. The victims they target are usually more vulnerable than them, which allows them to feel powerful and in control. …Bullying other kids is a way for them to retaliate for the pain they experienced.”
How can Jonny’s teacher and parents help him to break this pattern rather than replicate his own experience?
We all learn through experience. Most of our behaviour reflects what has happened to us, how we have been held, spoken to, included, comforted, encouraged, reassured – or conversely threatened, punished, humiliated, and so on. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we can learn other options from observation, from reading or films, but it is difficult to acquire any behaviour which has not been modelled for us in some way.
Only last week in our Torah reading, we stood at Sinai, experiencing an overwhelming revelation, hearing the ideals and general principles which are to underpin our society in the future. The ‘mission statement’ is clear, although somewhat abstract. But we are a rabble of recently freed slaves who have been victims of a harsh regime for several generations. Descriptions of the Israelites in Egypt before the Exodus suggest that we lack trust and have a tendency to quarrel violently. How are we to begin to implement the lofty principles in practice?
The challenging process starts immediately, in this week’s parashah, Mishpatim. The text consists principally of over forty rules about how we are to behave to each other and to God. “Do Not Steal” of the Ten Commandments is expanded not only into the treatment of a thief who is caught, but a structure for proportionate fines and damages, and guidelines about how we must relate to other people’s property. To supplement “Do Not Murder”, other capital offences will be defined, and we are given rules about how the community must respond to other violence. The commandment about Shabbat is elucidated a little, and we are instructed about the pilgrim festivals and the sabbatical year.
That is not, however how the parashah begins. The very first rules are in fact about slavery, the situation we hope to have left behind us. It seems that at the time of the Exodus, and indeed the time when our texts were written, our ancestors and their neighbours throughout the Ancient Near East could not conceive of a society without slaves. What could be more natural than for us as recent slaves to look forward to controlling our own lives, perhaps at the expense of others weaker than ourselves.
And so the first instructions in our own nascent code of law and ethics teach us that slavery is not a desirable option for Israelites, that slavery must be limited, that even slaves have rights. If and when we have power over others, there will be laws about how we treat them and sanctions if we overstep the mark – unlike our own past experience. Later in the sidra, the instructions expand to include the treatment of widows, orphans, people in poverty, strangers and even enemies. This will become a recurrent theme throughout Torah.
Torah recognises the risk that victim can become perpetrator, and that legacy feelings of impotence and humiliation may be expressed in harsh treatment of the most vulnerable people within our own society. The text is explicit both here and in over 30 other places within Torah: “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
I believe this message is relevant not only to the freed slave or the bullied child. It should speak to any of us, as individuals but also as societies and nations, who have come through difficult times and now find ourselves in a stronger position. It isn’t easy, but the moral imperative is to grow from our experience, not to impose it on others.
To return to the words of Alice Miller who was writing specifically about adverse childhood experience, but whose wisdom is widely applicable:
“The damage done to us cannot be undone, since we cannot change anything in our past… We become free by transforming ourselves from unaware victims of the past into responsible individuals in the present …
…The strong person … does not need to demonstrate strength through contempt.”
Nicola Feuchtwang LBC rabbinic student
- Miller, Alice. The Drama of Being a Child : The Search for the True Self ; Completely Revised and Updated. London, Virago, 2008.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.