Today I was speaking with an old friend of mine who recently got married to her second husband and is very happy. She has four children and he has three. Her ex-husband also got remarried to a young woman with three children and they are very happy as well. The children really like their new step-father and their new step-mother. For a little while, we discussed how the Orthodox community still sees divorce as a stigma, even though it has become so common. She suggested to me that I write a post in my blog about the importance of being sensitive to others and their unique situations. I have definitely had my own experiences with people making ridiculous comments to me about being divorced, or a baalas teshuva or not having a baby 9 months after my wedding. I know many people who have gone through similar experiences, so I decided that this post would be a great idea.
So here’s the truth: everyone has something painful going on in their lives. Some people’s pain just happens to be more public than others. Therefore, none of us have any right to go and judge other peoples’ situations and it is our duty, as Jews, to try and make an effort to be sensitive to others.
My twins are now six months old and they love to go on the swings in the park. Over Sukkos, my husband and I were walking home from one of our meals out and we passed by one of the neighborhood parks. Both of the girls were awake so I suggested we take the girls to play on the swings. Now, I grew up in Toronto so I know a LOT of people here. I also have an excellent memory. As we approach the park I survey the scene, and sure enough, I spot some familiar faces. For an outsider passing by the park, everything would appear picture-perfect; all of these lovely Orthodox families dressed to the nines, out for a sunny afternoon at the park, enjoying their festival without a care in the world. But from where I am standing, I know enough to realize that there is a lot of stuff going on beneath the surface. Over by the monkey bars is a guy-friend from my youth who is now married with a handicapped son. Over by the slide I spot another family. A mother, with three young children. Yup, I know her too. This woman was a victim of an abusive marriage and had to struggle to receive her get (Jewish divorce), although, unlike me, she had three young children in tow. She is now a single mother, raising her kids on her own. Then I turn back to the swings where my own children are playing. Or rather, swinging and watching the ground go by. Marc is pushing Zissie and I’m pushing Nechama, my daughter whose name in Hebrew means comfort…… My daughter, whose name we chose so that she should be a comfort to my family after the death of my grandfather, but also so that she should be a comfort to us after a brief struggle with infertility…….
You see, I didn’t have the easiest time getting pregnant. Or rather, B”H (thank G-d) I didn’t have the easiest time getting pregnant. I was fortunate enough that I did not get pregnant in my previous marriage, allowing me to walk away with no strings attached. Had I had a child with my ex husband, my life would have been over. So it took Marc and me 16 months to conceive and we never really found out the exact reason for it, but ultimately, I ended up with a major pregnancy. I had twins! You may say that 16 months isn’t so long to wait and you’re right, but when you want to have a child very badly, and month after month brings disappointment, it’s a long time to wait.
So when you are going through something like this and you get some not-so-sensitive comments or questions, or you find yourself in the middle of a bunch of women talking about their pregnancies and their kids, it can feel like you have daggers stabbing at your heart. Now, I’m not trying to point fingers at anyone here because most of the time people either mean well or are just oblivious. I can honestly say that I am sure that I must have acted insensitively at some point in my life without realizing it because it is so hard to know what people are going through. Now that I am a mother, I can understand why many women with children wouldn’t think of using discretion around those that don’t because being pregnant and having children does take up a lot of your brain space and energy! Nevertheless, those without children can be deeply hurt by those who have a habit of speaking at length about their children and their pregnancies, so it is important to try and keep this in mind and to be extra-careful.
The same concept applies for older singles, divorced people, people with disabilities, people who struggle with their weight, people who have had broken engagements, people who struggle with money….. The list goes on.
So what is the title of this post all about? Well, it’s a funny story, or maybe not so funny. Shortly after I got divorced, I was home visiting my family and I went to the mall to do a little shopping. I ran into a woman who I knew from the Orthodox community who I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. She asked me how I was doing and why I was in Toronto for a visit. I explained that I had just gotten divorced and was home visiting my family. To which her response was, “Oh my gosh, now you’re divorced and you’re a baal teshuva!” Yeah, classy.
My point is, as Jews, let us remind ourselves that there is the mitzvah of dan l’kaf zechus, (to give people the benefit of the doubt) and there is the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’raecha kamocha (to love your neighbor as yourself), often understood as meaning treat others as you would like to be treated.
This past Shabbos, we read Parshas Noach, the story of Noah’s ark. The Torah says, “Noah was righteous in his generation.” This means that compared to the other people in his generation, who had very low morals, Noach was a righteous man, but not compared to some of the other righteous people whom we read about in the Torah. At a time when the world was at an all-time low, G-d chose to wipe out the majority of the world. G-d chose Noach and his family to live on the ark and take care of the last remaining creatures. Why did he save Noach when he could have easily obliterated the entire world and started again? Some commentaries explain that G-d made this choice because he had faith in Noach and saw that Noach had the potential to be someone great and rise to a higher moral level. By choosing Noach to take care of the animals, God forced him to notice the needs of the individual. Each animal needed something different, requiring different types of food and care at different times. As a result of this challenge, Noah’s character was molded into that of a sensitive caregiver.
None of us are perfect and we all have our own life’s challenges, but if Noach could learn to be sensitive from a bunch of animals, then FOR SURE we can learn to be sensitive as well.
Here’s to a wonderful week ahead. Shavua Tov.