Good Communication Engenders Warmth

Q: I was interested to read the question regarding teaching hachnasas orchim. I was very surprised to read the following sentence: “To keep our families close we share a Shabbos seudah once or twice a year.”

I thought that perhaps this is a contradiction in terms. It seems unlikely that an annual or biannual Shabbos get-together of families who live within walking distance of one another will do much to foster warmth and closeness. The circumstances and bad feeling described in the rest of the letter perhaps are a consequence of this situation. Maybe by spending more quality time together over the year, the families would enjoy better communication. I am surprised that you did not address this.

A: For the benefit of readers who do not recall that column, I will summarize the question and my response. A woman wrote that her family was eating a seudah with her brother’s family. Her nieces sat through the entire meal without helping. Towards the end of the meal, the woman rebuked her nieces. Later, the sister-in-law defended her children’s inaction. The writer asked me to adjudicate.

In my response, I sided with the sister-in-law for two reasons. Firstly, I did not feel it was appropriate for an aunt to scold her nieces in the presence of their parents. Corrective comments should be made by parents, not extended family members. That is why it is called “parenting.”

Secondly, I felt the justification the sister-in-law had given — namely, that she chooses to teach hachnasas orchim by example rather than by instruction — was legitimate. Furthermore, the sister-in-law reported that her children assist with food preparation and clean-up, demonstrating that they do share in the household responsibilities.

I did not address the issue of how often these two families get together for the following reasons. The writer has four children. Her brother has five. Altogether, there were 13 people around the table. Even though these two families live within walking distance of each other, it simply may not be practical for them to eat together more than twice a year. One week this family has a simchah. The next week the other family has one. The following week one of the children is inviting a friend from camp. And the week after that a different child has a Shabbaton, a bar mitzvah, a school trip, etc. You get the idea. As Chazal have taught: “Living in large cities is difficult” (Kesuvos 110b). And as the Shittah Mekubetzes explains, citing Rabbeinu Yonah, this is because of the stress of social pressures. If these two large families manage to get together for a Shabbos seudah twice a year, therefore, I consider that a major logistical success.

Furthermore, the writer of the original letter was not complaining about a lack of closeness. She was not asking for advice on how to increase the levels of affection between the two families. And I do not believe that a lack of warmth caused the conflict. In fact, I believe the relationship between closeness and communication is the other way around. It is good communication that engenders warmth. Only after open, honest and straightforward lines of communication have been established can intimacy be achieved. As the Torah states, first, “And Yitzchak brought [Rivkah] into the tent of Sarah his mother. And he took Rivkah and she became his wife.” And only afterwards, “And he loved her.” (Bereishis 24:67)

Moreover, I do not believe that simply spending more time together automatically improves communication. If that were so, then nuclear families would all have excellent communication since they live together. In reality, however, some nuclear families have absolutely horrendous communication. And the fact that they spend so much time together only exacerbates their problems. I have seen families, for example, where everyone wants to speak and no one is willing to listen. And I know of families where honest feelings are never shared. And family members are expected to understand on their own that which is left unsaid.

Finally, I do not believe the “bad feeling described in the rest of the letter” was the result of not spending enough time together. There are siblings who do not see each other for years at a stretch who are much closer than these two sisters-in-law who were at odds. Rather, I believe the ill-will stemmed from feelings of sibling rivalry between the brother and sister which carried over into adulthood. I have seen, for example, otherwise rational adult children who become unreasonable in dealing with each other around decision- making for their elderly parents. The contentiousness which often erupts in such cases has more to do with their unresolved competitive feelings from childhood than with legitimate disagreements regarding the best interests of the parents.


 

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.