A Midrash Tanchuma
R. Alexandri said: Two mules are being led along a road by men who despise each other. Suddenly, one of the mules falls to the ground. As the one who is leading the second mule passes by, he sees the mule of the other man stretched out beneath his load, and he says to himself: “Is it not written in the law that If thou seest the donkey of him that hateth thee lying under its burden, thou shalt forbear to pass him by; thou shalt verily release it for him?” What did he do? He turned back to help the other man reload his mule, and then accompanied him on the way. In fact, while working with him he began to talk to the owner of the mule, saying: “Let us loosen it a little on this side, let us tighten it down on this side,” until he reloaded the animal with him. It came to pass that they had made peace between themselves. The driver of the mule (that had fallen) said to himself: “I cannot believe that he hates me; see how concerned he was when he saw that my mule and I were in distress.” As a result, they went into the inn, and ate and drank together. Finally they be-came extremely attached to each other. Hence, Thou hast established equity, Thou hast executed justice and righteousness.
I always encourage the boys to express their thoughts and feelings, to resolve conflict through mature open and honest dialogue, using communication and compromise. However, sometimes One or both sides are not ready or able. This happens in all types of conflicts, with friends, with parents or children, siblings, co-workers. Sometimes talking things out isn’t always the best option.
The Midrash explains here how this very important mitzvah can help 2 people in conflict work through their issues without directly addressing it. In fact, perhaps here, where the Torah testifies that there is real hate involved, speaking could risk making things worse. Words can be misconstrued or unaccepted and worsen the conflict Chas V’Shalom. How did these 2 individuals work through their issues. By spending time together, focusing on a task and working together. The task required communication and teamwork. Both sides needed the other to get the job done, and that means they needed to respect and listen to each other, sometimes letting one lead and the other follow, and vice versa. The task equalized and humanized them.
Sometimes when we find ourselves in a “fight” with a child/student, it might be best to drop the issue for now and just spend time together, doing something productive and working together. The truth is, we don’t need to wait for conflict to arise to employ this tactic. It is important to spend time with teens outside of giving advice/educating/reprimanding/directing etc. IF we can find even once a week, once a month, something “Parve” to do together, a walk, a trip to cofix, a bike ride, a card game, or a backyard project, where we treat the teen as a partner and equal, rely on them as much as they rely on us (with or without realizing it and which they also sometimes resent). I have found the best conversations I have had with my children and students are not planned but rather unfold organically while both of us are distracted from each other, our relationship and all that goes with it.
I know of a story of a farmer with many children who divided up the chores among them. One child was picked for early morning/late night rounds checking on the animals in the winter. The chore could last an hour. The child resented being woken up in the middle of the night from a warm bed, and constantly complained why she had to be picked for this job.
Later in life when the child grew up, she realized that most of who she became, her ideals and goals, her personality and sense of morality, her entire outlook on life grew out of those nighttime chores spent together with her father, who never stopped talking and telling stories. Imagine having your teens ear for an hour a day without all the distractions, baggage and everything else that sometimes gets in the way! As an aside, if your struggling with what to tell your teen, I recently saw a study that showed children who grew up hearing stories about their parents, grandparents, relatives etc. have a greater percentage of continuing their families culture and way of life. The stories provide context for the child and create a sense of responsibility and connection with the past. It is much easier to break away form something you feel disconnected from then form something you feel a real link with. But don’t try too hard, the best and most meaningful moments happen all on their own without trying, like in the above Midrash.
Shabbat Shalom, Have a Great Shabbos
Ari Deutscher MSW