Not the Time to Teach Vatranus

Q: Regarding the letter from the mother whose son flew into a rage over his younger sister sitting in the front seat of the car, I sympathize with all concerned. Children nevertheless must learn that not all needs to be engraved in stone. Such attitudes can lead to uncompromising positions which are not healthy in life.

If possible, the mother should have pre-empted the situation. She could have gotten out of the car upon fetching her son and told him quietly, with her arm around his shoulders, that even though he is entitled to sit in front it is commendable to be mevater (to nullify one’s desires for another’s good) in such circumstances. He is definitely entitled to wake up his sister if it is very important for him to sit up front. But he will probably have more opportunities than she will to sit up front, as he is older. And being mevater will certainly make him into a much better person. He can choose what he wishes to do. If he still wishes to wake up his sister, therefore, and make her move into the back seat, he can do it kindly and gently…

A: For the benefit of readers who may not recall the column about which you are commenting, here is a synopsis of the original letter and my response.

A mother was driving with her 10-year-old daughter asleep in the front passenger seat. Three minutes from home, she stopped to pick up her 11-year-old son. Seeing his younger sister in “his” seat, he flew into a rage and began hitting her. In their family, the mother explained, they have a “rule” that when two or more siblings ride in the car, the oldest child gets to sit in the front seat. The mother had to raise her voice to get her son to calm down and get into the back seat. She then asked for my opinion of her handling of the situation.

In my reply, I suggested that the mother could have avoided the altercation if she had woken her daughter and asked her to move to the back seat before they picked up her son.

You agree that the mother could have prevented the clash between her children. You believe, however, that the mother should have soothingly asked her son to give up the preferred seat to teach vatranus.

I concur with you in principle. However, I do not believe it applies in this case. Here’s why.

Being mevater is an extremely important middah to teach and instill in children. Chazal stressed the significance of being mevater by relating the following episode (Ta’anis 25b). Klal Yisrael was suffering from a terrible draught. Rabi Eliezer descended to the chazzan’s place and recited the 24 blessings of the extended Shemoneh Esrei reserved for catastrophic circumstances. When he finished, there was still no rain. Rabi Akiva then followed with a very short tefillah which was answered immediately by the commencement of rainfall.

Upon seeing this, the Rabbanim began murmuring. A Heavenly voice then set the record straight by proclaiming, “[What just took place] was not because [Rabi Akiva] is greater than [Rabi Eliezer] but because [Rabi Akiva] is mevater and [Rabi Eliezer] is not.”

When guiding children to be mevater, the approach you recommend is definitely indicated. As you advised, a parent should not attempt to invalidate a child’s legitimate rights. If a child is entitled to a privilege or advantage, therefore, a parent should acknowledge that. Being mevater does not mean denying one’s rights. Rather, it means forgoing them in order to achieve a higher purpose.

Furthermore, you rightfully suggested that parents should not insist or demand that a child be mevater. Rather, the child should be encouraged to choose to be mevater. As you illustrated, a parent must emphasize that it is always up to the child whether or not he or she feels ready to be mevater.

In this case, however, I did not feel the mother should have encouraged her son to be mevater. If parents ask one child to be mevater to a sibling the parents will find themselves on a very slippery slope. The child asked to be mevater, in most cases the older one, will ultimately come to resent his or her younger sibling. And then the sibling rivalry which sparked the controversy in the first place will only become exacerbated.

So often, parents impose upon older siblings to be mevater because it makes the parents’ lives easier. The younger child is screaming, shattering the tranquility of the home. If the older child will simply be mevater, the younger one will stop crying and peace will reign. Are we truly interested in teaching vatranus to the older child or do we just want to end the commotion?

If we want to teach vatranus, we should use opportunities between our children and their peers. Because if we try to teach vatranus between siblings, we may find that we have succeeded only in fanning the very flames we wanted to extinguish.


 

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