Chaim Trachtman

Finding Words

You are enjoying a nice afternoon outing with your family and your young children. Everything seems to be going along just fine until suddenly one of the 2-year-olds explodes into howls of protest and a flood of tears. You were not paying attention, so you have no idea what triggered the outburst. Now all eyes are focused on this  small screaming creature. We have all experienced this and felt the terror of not knowing how to deal with this unrecognizable child. I think back to when this happened with my daughters, and I appreciate how lucky I was to be able to team up with my wife and gang up, two on one, to somehow regain control of the situation. All I can remember is the sigh of relief when calm was restored. Now I am a grandfather, and that very cute but terrible 2-year-old is not my child and I watch my daughters cope with the situation with their children. Much to my surprise, I watch as they seem to know exactly what they are doing. They calmly look at their child and repeat as if it is a magical incantation, ”Find your words. Use your words.” Slowly but surely, coupled with some well-timed hugs and a varying tone of voice, the heaving sobs slow down, speech returns, and everyone goes back to business as usual.

I have been thinking about this charge to ”Find your words, use your words,”  in the pleasant afterglow of my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. There was lots of planning that went into the celebration. I will spare you the endless list of logistical details. But one thing that I am struck by is the close attention that was afforded to the speeches that would be given at the meals on Shabbat and at the party on Sunday – who, where, when, and how long. Everyone wanted to make sure that their words expressed their deep feelings for the bat mitzvah girl, conveyed the right message and their personal blessing to her, was linked to the weekly parsha, and got it done in 5 minutes or less—no mean feat. I too tried to find the words that were right for me. I focused on what I thought was the unique fact that it was the third time I had “learned” how to read Korach – for my bar mitzvah, when I taught my nephew, and now when I taught my granddaughter. But after I gave my short talk at lunch, I read an intriguing essay in that suggested that the narrative we read contains two strands—a poetic version that takes a more conciliatory approach to what Korach “took” and a prosaic text that is more definitive in its condemnation of Korach’s actions and why he was punished so severely and so dramatically. I thought, “Why didn’t I use this to frame my words to my granddaughter?”

Three weeks have passed, and my thoughts have gone in a different direction.  Make no mistake – I still appreciate the importance of finding my words, using them thoughtfully, saying the right thing for the occasion. Words are powerful instruments. They can motivate people to do good things and they can also cause tremendous personal damage. The halakhic injunctions against idle gossip and libel are not mere lip service. At the same time, the Rabbis recognized that speech is not an action and they generally refrained from punishing people for verbal acts.

And that has gotten me thinking more about the bat mitzvah. My granddaughter’s bat mitzvah was special and reinforces the idea that finding words is not always the ultimate goal. Her parents are divorced. It is unfortunate but it happens. My daughter and her ex-husband understand this and have gone their separate ways. But one thing that they share now and will always share is an intense and abiding love for their daughter and an unswerving commitment to always try to do what they can to help her grow up into an adjusted, productive, and happy adult.

The bat mitzvah was one small step along the way. It was critical to get the bat mitzvah right so when my granddaughter looked back from the safe perch of a few years into the future, she would view it as a meaningful experience. How did my daughter and her ex-husband accomplish this? By making sure that both families  — grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends — joined together in the bat mitzvah, by creating a warm space under the tent during tefilah on Shabbat morning, around the Shabbat meal tables, and on the dance floor at the Sunday party where everyone could participate in the celebration.

There was lots of talking and there were speeches. But in the end, the words paled in significance compared with what people said with their bodies and actions. Their presence made sure that my granddaughter understood that though we are different from one another and though the choices we make in life bring us to different destinations, we are still one family and that hopefully we will be there for one another and for her. She would realize that we are still connected and we love each other. You can say things like that. But to actually pull it off is a higher bar. So yes, find your words. But how we act on them is how we build good lives. I hope my granddaughter will consider her bat mitzvah as one of those acts.

About the Author
Chaim Trachtman is originally from Philadelphia. He is a pediatric nephrologist and is Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan and founder of RenalStrategies LLC. He retired from clinical practice at NYU Grossman School of Medicine where he was Professor of Pediatrics and chief of the division of nephrology. He is the PI for both NIH- and industry-sponsored observational cohort studies and clinical trials for patients with kidney disease. He is a board member of Yeshivat Maharat and Darkhei Noam. He edited a book entitled "Women and Men in Communal prayer (Ktav/JOFA)" that discusses partnership minyanim. His wife is the current President of AMIT and he has three daughters and six grandchildren.