A Polite Request for Basic Sensitivity

I dated for close to a decade. During that time, I got all sorts of questions, speculations and unsolicited advice related to marriage. I wrote this piece about eight years ago in response to what I felt was communal insensitivity in how I was being treated.

Thankfully, I have since married, but the message, I believe, is still relevant. Think about how (and where!) you talk about dating and romance to those who are not married. Hopefully, together we can build a more empathic community.

Rebecca is carefully perusing the cereal shelves in her local supermarket. Bran flakes vs. life cereal. These little routines help her take her mind off the difficult period she and her husband are going through. They have been trying to have children for three years, but unfortunately, God has not yet blessed them with a child. It’s especially hard for Rebecca, living in a community with so many young couples who already have several children. While examining the nutritional facts on the cereal box, she is granted momentary respite from her otherwise anxiety-ridden concerns. Until she is interrupted.

“Rebecca? Hi! How are you?”

The voice is that of a friend from college, though in recent years the two have drifted apart.

“So . . . how’s life?”

Rebecca smiles. “It’s great, thank God. I’m finishing up school at Hunter and my husband has been working at KPMG.”

Rebecca knows this is not the answer her friend is looking for.

“But . . . (empathetic pause). How’s everything else?”

It is becoming more and more difficult for Rebecca to continue smiling. “Good, really good.”

“I know that you and Josh have been having trouble having kids.”

Rebecca’s stomach knots up. She knew the conversation was going there. She’s unsure what bothers her more—the distant friend asking a too-personal question, or the indiscreet location for a conversation that warrants the intimacy of a living room rather than a supermarket aisle.

As her friend continues, Rebecca struggles to hold onto her smile, and nods through the barrage of questions and unsolicited attempts at consolation.

“It must be so hard . . . Are you really trying? Do you or your husband have issues? I know a rabbi… ”

Rebecca turns to her friend, who is eagerly awaiting a response to the sage advice she has just dispensed, and mumbles, “Thanks so much.”

*      *      *

Baruch is a father of four with a wonderful wife. Life had always gone well for him, but nearly a year ago he was laid off and he now has mounting debt. The longer he remains unemployed, the more hopeless he becomes of ever finding a decent job. Simcha, a close friend of his, just made partner in a top-ten firm. Baruch is genuinely happy for his close friend, but the prominence of Simcha’s promotion makes his unemployment all the more glaring. Simcha is planning a small kiddush in shul this coming Shabbos to celebrate his promotion. Although Baruch is nervous about it, he is determined to attend the kiddush to celebrate with his close friend.

At the kiddush, Baruch has an unsettling feeling that people are thinking, “Oh wow, I can’t believe he came. This must be so hard for him.” The truth is, they are right. It is hard. After giving Simcha a hug and a mazel tov, Baruch turns around to leave. Hoping to make a quiet exit and return to his family, he is stopped by several people. “Im yirtzeh Hashem by you . . .  Im yirtzeh Hashem by you . . . ”

He feels as though a consolation firing squad has selected him for execution.

An older friend then takes him aside. “Baruch,
you should know that the situation you’re in is really
a berachah.”

Frustrated by his friend’s insensitivity and unable to think of a coherent response, Baruch mutters, “Im yirtzeh Hashem by you….”

*      *      *

I know what you’re thinking. These scenarios are not applicable to singles. Frankly, I agree with you. Singles have a very different struggle than couples trying to have children. And the struggle to have children is surely quite different than the challenges of finding employment. The point of this essay is not to illustrate an equivalency between life’s vast array of obstacles, but rather to encourage similar thought and sensitivity when approaching anybody having difficulties in life. The moment we begin engaging in the game of “who has it worse?” we have abandoned our responsibility to view each individual’s problem as deeply unique and personal. Leave it to God to award the prize for “who had it worse.” In the meantime, we can try to make it better.

Everyone has setbacks in life. Different people have different starts and different journeys during their otherwise productive and successful lives. Some get laid off, some struggle with having children, others take longer to get married. Each deserves sensitivity, privacy and dignity. This can be achieved with a healthy dose of common sense and a brief period of thought before speaking.

Don’t be so quick to assume that it’s the single’s fault for his or her predicament. Just as some people try unsuccessfully to have children, others try but are unable to find a suitable partner. Trust me. Some people happily marry later in life and the only thing that stopped them from finding a partner sooner was mazel, not a personality/commitment/pathological disorder.

Make sure your words of encouragement were solicited (explicitly or implicitly), and when having a conversation try not to keep gravitating to the setback your friend, acquaintance, or person you met in the supermarket is experiencing. Despite what you may think, she or he doesn’t necessarily want to talk about it. Don’t refer to something as a “berachah” unless you’d really wish it upon yourself. When you’re a good friend to others, they’ll be there in your times of difficulty.

Im yirtzeh Hashem by you oif simchos!

Dovid Bashevkin is director of education for NCSY and a member of the Jewish Action Editorial Committee. His most recent book is Sin-a-gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought (Boston, 2019).

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This article was featured in the Summer 2019 issue of Jewish Action.
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