One of the things that is hardest to balance in Judaism is the gap between the ideal and what happens in reality. For example: What does a child do regarding the Torah commandment of: “Honor thy father and mother” if their parent is abusive? What does someone do regarding the Torah commandment of: “You shall not go around as a gossipmonger among your people” if one sees or hears something that must be addressed and dealt with? How do you know they are telling the truth? What about when someone is accused falsely? And even if it is true, what does one do to protect all of the innocent people on all sides? What does one do with the Torah commandment of: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow” in a situation where you know that chances are they will not listen or change? Or, how does a child fulfill the mitzvah of mourning for a parent who made their lives a living hell when they were alive? Which brings me to a letter I received recently from one of my students on this very topic. I cried when I read it, and maybe you will too:
“Dear Rebbetzin Krengel,
I have always felt that I could speak to you, and that you understood me in a way that very few busy communal leaders can or do, so I need to ask you a question. My father just passed away and he was highly abusive to me. He cursed and swore at me every day of my life. He called me horrible names. He hit me, he threw glass bottles at my head, he chased me around the house until my heart beat so fast that I thought it would explode. Then, I would collapse on the floor of my room – if I made it there safely and managed to lock the door. I was truly terrified of him, but the hardest and worst part of it all was that not only did I grow up without a loving father – and an abusive one at that – but he managed to turn the whole family against me. I was the “problem child”, I was the “bad guy” and the “bully”. Not only did no one ever acknowledge my pain, or the abuse that I was going through, but I was hated and despised to boot!
I now am in a situation where I must observe all of the halachot (Jewish laws) of Aveilut (mourning) and go through all of the motions and emotions of mourning, and it is so hard for me. I have never spoken to anyone about my situation, and people expect me to be crushed and distraught, but all I feel is numbness. The truth is that I have been mourning my father all of my life, since I never really had one. I don’t even know what it is to have a loving father who dotes on and protects his little girl. I only know hurt and hatred. To make matters worse, he was a community leader and everyone loved him and thought he was amazing. How will I face people who expect me to show sadness and mourning over “such a great guy”? What will I say at shiva? I can’t say the truth and I can’t lie. How can I cry? I have cried and mourned my entire life, so for me this is really the end of mourning for my father rather than the beginning! I know people will say I am so cold, tough or insensitive, but if they only knew the sadness and terror I have lived with all these years, they would see how untrue that really is. They would know the truth that I can never say.
To make matters worse, I am married to a wonderful man who also comes from an abusive home. His family hates him and, by extension, me as well. We have worked so hard in our own home to break this cycle of abuse – which in itself requires herculean efforts , but we still have to deal with the ramifications on our own children regarding their relationship with their grandparents, aunts and uncles etc. The whole situation is so depressing that I don’t even know where to put myself.
How should I approach this new period of my life? What should I be saying, thinking and doing?
I am trying so hard to do what God wants of me, but I don’t even know what that is anymore?
Please give me some guidance.
Thanks and sending love, xxxxxxx”