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Heart to Heart

Rivkah Imeinu knew how Yaakov could tame Eisav’s desire to kill him. What she tells her son is a lesson we can all learn

As parents or teachers, most of us have grappled with the frustrating question of how to talk to a rebellious child. There is indeed a secret to it, which Shlomo Hamelech relayed to us in a coded message, and which Rivkah Imeinu knew long before the wisest of men.

We’re all familiar with the famous pasuk in Mishlei (27:19), “As in water, a face reflects a face, so is the heart of a man to a man.” Now, you might roll your eyes and wonder why we’re talking about it again, but in fact these words hold the secret of success to all our interpersonal relationships.

Many of us find it impossible to communicate with a young person with whom we’re in conflict, and there’s a torrent of good advice out there about how to talk to him or her — no doubt many of these approaches helpful. But what’s often missing is not the style of our speech or the content of our message, but our attitude toward the child or adolescent we’re trying to talk to. Basically, we’re frustrated, offended, angry, and baffled. We’ve done our best for the child, so if he isn’t following the beautiful way of life we’ve bequeathed to him, there’s something wrong with him. It’s his fault. We may not even be aware of these thoughts, but if we dig down a bit, we’ll probably find them.

And we might be quite right in thinking we’ve given our children the best chinuch and sacrificed to provide for all their needs. We’ve done our part, and if the child is using his free choice to throw all that back in our faces, it’s entirely his responsibility. If this is our underlying attitude, this is the message that will come through, no matter what words we use.

I, the victimized parent, am willing to help in every possible way. I’m here to support my child’s efforts, but he’s the one who needs to do the work. I represent the Torah, the truth, the Will of G-d Himself, and therefore I don’t need to change. And because this is the prevalent attitude in situations where a child or student is not sticking with the program, we see few successes in bringing back these souls gone astray.

Shlomo Hamelech tells us otherwise. He tells us that to set the change in motion, we have to start with ourselves. We need to set blame aside and, instead, focus on the area where we can wield the greatest power — our own inner world, and in this case, our conception of the dynamics of our child’s rebellion. It is here that our responsibility lies.

The Ohr HaChaim brings the abovementioned pasuk to clarify the passage in Shemos (33:11) referring to how “Hashem would speak to Moshe face to face, as a man would speak to his companion”: “The words ‘as a man speaks to his companion’ may be explained by way of the pasuk, ‘As in water, where a face reflects a face, so is the heart of a man to a man,’ meaning that the heart will sense what is hidden and know whether to love or to hate, for according to the way a man readies his heart to love his friend, likewise his friend’s heart will think to love him…. It is human nature that when one person realizes how he feels about another, the other person recognizes this, for hearts tell hidden secrets, as is said, ‘As in water, where a face reflects a face, so is the heart of a man to a man.’ ”

In the same vein, the Vilna Gaon explains (in his commentary on Mishlei):

“As in water, where a face reflects a face — like water that shows a person’s face as he shows himself to the water. If he twists his face, the water will show him that way. So is the heart of a man to a man — if one’s heart is well-disposed toward another person, that person will be well-disposed toward him, even if the other doesn’t know what is in his heart.”

On the other hand, says the Gaon,

“…One who thinks evil thoughts in his heart and does not reveal them outwardly, even though no one knows what is in his heart, he will be hated, for ‘As in water, where a face reflects a face…’ ”

We can infer that whenever we’re in conflict with someone, the place to start resolving it is within ourselves. As the Baal Shem Tov teaches, the other is our mirror. If a person with a clean face looks into a mirror, he won’t see anything wrong, but if he looks into the mirror and sees grime, that means his face is dirty. In other words, flaws that we notice in others reflect our own flaws, showing us what we ourselves need to correct. Does someone seem hostile toward us for no apparent reason? This should teach us that even if we’re not conscious of it, we harbor negative feelings toward that person. Once we teach ourselves to think more favorably of him or her, we’ll see that almost magically, the other person will stop hating us. We can actually change others by changing ourselves.

Rivkah Imeinu knew this secret, and she revealed it to her son Yaakov when he fled to Charan to escape Eisav’s sword. She told him, “And now, my son, heed my voice and arise; flee for your own sake to my brother Lavan in Charan. And you shall dwell with him for a few days until your brother’s wrath has subsided. Until your brother’s rage subsides from you and he forgets what you did to him” (Bereishis 27:43–45).

There is a well-known chassidic explanation for the double language, “until your brother’s wrath has subsided,” and then “until your brother’s rage subsides from you.” Rivkah is telling Yaakov that once he succeeds in rising above himself, once he ceases hating Eisav and brings love for Eisav into his heart, then reciprocal love for Yaakov will surely enter Eisav’s heart. “When will your brother’s wrath subside? When ‘your brother’s rage subsides from you,’ when you no longer hate him.”

The Baal Shem Tov’s dictum, “The other is our mirror,” is confirmed in similar teachings by a number of gedolei Yisrael. When we look in a mirror and see grime, we can try to clean it off with soap. If the stain is still resistant, we might get so angry that we break the mirror. But none of this will do a bit of good if the grime is on our own face.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe ztz”l spoke of this all-too-human tendency as the “magic lantern,” a psychological projector that casts its eye on others and illuminates the very flaw that requires repair within ourselves. “Perhaps,” writes Rav Wolbe, “this is the immediate gain of self-knowledge, that we learn not to blame others, and to recognize our own flaws from what we tend to denigrate in those around us” (Alei Shur, vol. I, p.162ff).

Such a simple idea, yet so very powerful. Replace anger with compassion, resentment with love. If we would make a habit of using this power of the mind when we find communication with our struggling child stymied, we could reverse many troubling interpersonal conflicts, instead of running in endless circles of fault-finding and blame.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 787)

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