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It's Not Fair!

Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg

"Same seats, same seats!" "No! Not the same seats!" "You sat by the window on the way here, I get the window on the way back." Sound familiar? How about this one: "OK class, please line up now at the door for lunch." "I'm first in line I called it!" "No way, I was here first!" "No, I was, get out of my way!!" The above is followed by pushing, shoving and occasional fisticuffs. If these examples don't move you, maybe you can relate to this one: "Joshua got a bigger piece of cake than me!" "You always buy Sarah toys and you never get me anything!" The bottom line question is, why can't these kids just get along and why don't they appreciate all of the good things we have provided them?

Of course, we adults have no such problems. Unless, of course, you have stood on line in any government office. There the temptation to follow the law of the jungle is almost insurmountable. Or perhaps, you have had the unique pleasure of waiting in line at a wedding or Bar Mitzva smorgasbord. There one can sense a massive fear that for the first time in known Jewish banquet history, there might be a shortage of franks-in-a-blanket or a scarcity of just the right pastry at the Viennese table. Such panic sets off a stampede and a shoving match reminiscent of those caused by shouts of fire in a crowded theater. (A friend of mine once had his hand pierced by an errant fork wielded by a celebrant who evidently mistook it for a piece of gefilte fish!)

It's no wonder that at home and school the "THAT'S NOT FAIR!" mentality reigns. How can we replace our children's fear of being shortchanged with a behavior of calm graciousness reminiscent of that expressed by our forefather, Jacob, who, in response to his evil brother Eisav's claim of "I have much," was able to truthfully state, "You may have much, but I have everything I need."?

Our sages have taught us that the answer lies in an attitude. Ironically, it was an attitude expressed by the most evil of rulers, Pharaoh himself. In his famous dream of feast and famine, Pharaoh saw seven healthy cows which were later consumed by seven sickly cows. In his description of the dream, Pharaoh terms the first seven as being of "robust flesh and beautiful form" while the following seven were described as "scrawny and of very inferior form." Our sages were troubled by the Torah's use of the additional terms of beautiful or inferior form. Ostensibly, to convey the idea of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, the description of robust or scrawny would have been sufficient. They therefore concluded that the description of the form of the cows was meant to convey the attitude of appreciation that each person had toward the health of his neighbor's livestock. Since there was a feeling of personal plenty, no one was envious of his friends' possessions, and all could appreciate the beautiful form of his friend's cow as well.

In their analysis of Pharaoh's dream, the sages of the Talmud have revealed a fundamental principle in education and character refinement. One's ability to avoid feelings of envy and perform acts of kindness is a function of feeling that one's cup is full. If I do not have enough to fulfill my needs, then I cannot hope to provide you with yours. Moreover, I will even be jealous of any success that you do have.

Life often creates situations, more serious than bus lines and school lines, than dinner tables and buffet tables, where we feel that our needs are not met. The key to keeping one's moral balance at such times lies in the ability to perceive that despite the current lack, there is still enough to go around, and we will get what we need when we really need it. I call this the law of the kibbutz: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Such a law is essential for the effective functioning of a home or classroom.

There are a few basic skills that parents and teachers can learn to create this feeling of "I have it all" in the home and classroom. G-d has promised through his prophet that "Before they call to me, I will answer, while they are still speaking, I will listen." If we are to try to follow in His ways, we must practice the difficult but highly worthwhile skill of anticipating someone else's needs.

Try to be sensitive to a potential situation that will require attention and kindness and plan to provide it. For example, carry a Band-Aid in your purse or wallet in the event that someone cuts their finger. Put an air freshener in a room that needs it. Notice that your son needs a new baseball mitt, that your daughter could use a few new hair clips and barrettes, that your wife could use some time together with you and that your husband needs some time alone -- before they ask for it! This creates a feeling in children that their parents know them, understand them, and desire their happiness. The result is that they can then feel confident enough to be givers as well as takers.

Secondly, when giving children presents, it is better to give to each child separately, at different times, than to succumb to the "if one gets everyone gets" mentality. As long as children are consistently shown that they will eventually have their turn for special attention, they can learn to allow their siblings and classmates to enjoy their moments of glory as well. In addition, parents should consistently make children aware of the value of small things. A child who feels happiness only when receiving something made by Mattel, will not be able to rejoice in another's success. However, if he or she is reminded of the blessings inherent in having a loving mother and father, or having a soft bed and warm blanket to sleep in, etc., his or her happiness and generosity are almost guaranteed.

Most importantly, it is crucial to speak often to children about matters of trust in G-d. People, even people whose first names are Mommy and Daddy, are limited in their ability to give and anticipate expectations. G-d, however, can do it all. Books like Small Miracles and many popular Jewish story books contain beautiful accounts of how G-d provides people with their real needs, often through miraculous means.

Usually, however, the most effective stories are those that come from our own experiences, when children hear their parents and teachers speak of feeling G-d's hand in their own lives. Similarly, one can play the game of "where did it come from?" Take any common object in your home or classroom and trace back its creation to the store, factory, raw material, etc., which it was made or came from, until you reach its ultimate source -- G-d. Since everything comes from Him, since we have seen Him help us in our lives, and since there are so many stories of Him helping others, we need no longer fear that we will lose by giving to others.

If children feel threatened, then they will become defensive. If children feel secure, then they will want to give. Home and school are the places where parents and teachers can role model and teach the lessons of seven years of plenty, and thus provide a secure foundation of caring and giving in their homes and schools.

Copyright 2000 by Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg and Project Genesis, Inc.

 


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