Pudgy. Clumsy. Momma’s boy. I was an easy target for the taunts of bullies who knew that I was more likely to run home crying than to stay and fight. Tough guys have a knack for meting out brutality on kids like me who are the most vulnerable.
You see, one day in fourth grade, the moment arrived for me to test the hypothesis that it being the persecutor was sweeter than being the persecuted: There came Peter, plodding kid who limped. I accosted him in the schoolyard.
“You’re a bowlegged pig with lumbago!” I crooned. How I chose that jeer, I will never know.
I stood for an eternal second outside myself, stunned by the discovery of my untapped reservoir of cruelty. I watched Peter crumple. I will never forget the panic that twisted his face. He loped across the yard like a bewildered puppy to his mother’s embrace. I chased behind, not knowing how to dispel the enormity of his hurt. I cowered as I surrendered to a mother’s wrath.
But his mother simply shook her head and whispered a few words at me in a voice I now recognize as war-weary, “If you only knew how many tears we have cried . . .”
Mortified, I ran the eight blocks home, knowing as only a child that I could gain atonement only by confessing to my mother. She listened impassively as, between sobs, I choked out the story of the pain I had inflicted and my ensuing contrition.
“Maishe Chayim,” she said, reverting to the Yiddish with which disappointment and counsel were dispensed, “M’tor nisht oplachen. We dare not make fun.”
However many wrongs I commit with my errant life, I will forever be haunted by the image of panic-stricken Peter, his mother’s whispered lament and my mother’s wisdom. I pledge that I will haunt my kids with them, too. We dare not mock the differences and adversities of others. We dare not rejoice even when our adversaries stumble.
Because we were not put on earth to hurt. Because if I laugh in the moment of your distress, I have bequeathed to you the right to delight in my misfortunes. Because a society that luxuriates in hardship is on the road to being a society that is systemically heartless. Because a downfall, even when it is deserved, is not an occasion for intimations that we are above reproach.
Thus, we must teach our children even in their earliest years not to make fun of the child who limps or stutters or who can’t catch or throw as well as the rest. We must teach them what vicious weapons words can be, how there has never been any act of treachery that did not begin with the abuse of speech.
Our children learn best when we show them that we live by the lessons we teach them: We must not toss off racial epithets. We must not grab a cheap chuckle from the sight of morons wearing tee shirts that extol hate-talk. “Just joking,” will we tell our kids? I think not, for Dr. Nietzsche’s wisdom will prevail: “A joke is the epigram on the death of a feeling.”
And, we must assiduously resist the impulse to gloat self-righteously over of public personages who have been scandalized, even when it is coming to them. For, if their excesses are to leave any ennobling lesson, it will never be found through our own hypocrisy. “M’tor nisht oplachen.” Evil is to be condemned. But, we dare not revel, for then we will have learned nothing.
So, that day I tried out the theory that it might be tastier to deliver the blow than to receive it. Peter, I will never forget the terror that crossed your face. I will never forget your mother’s look of anguish, nor my mother’s admonition that sealed the memory forever: “Maishe Chayim, we dare not make fun.” Please know, Peter, that even if you do not remember, I will never forget and will forever beg your forgiveness.
“WILUDI” (aka Marc Howard Wilson) is a rabbi who writes from Greenville, South Carolina.