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Torah with Morrie #14: Family First

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Boruch Leff

What is the most important element in achieving happiness?

75% of Americans listed family as the number one key to happiness, according to an AP poll released in July 2005. Having a secure, caring family unit is the prime factor in enabling people to live joyful lives.

Certainly, many of society’s ills can be traced to the breakdown of the family structure in modern times. This is what politicians on both sides of the political spectrum mean when they champion a return to family values as an election issue. Renewing our commitment to the ideals, standards and morals of the family lifestyle seems to guarantee the enhancement of civilization as a whole. People forced to live without a strong family component often have a harder time adjusting to and caring about the needs of others. Family life teaches love, kindness, generosity, and teamwork. By definition, family living breeds a lack of selfishness.

While close friends can come and go, family is the constant presence and anchor in a person’s life, providing security, identity, self-worth, and happiness. Your mother will always be your mother.

The prophet Isaiah instructs us of the importance to look after family first:

"Spread your bread for the hungry, and bring the groaning poor to your house, when you see an exposed man, clothe him, but from your own flesh do not hide" (Isaiah, 58:7).

Explains the Radak commentary, although it is incumbent upon us to feed, clothe, and support all poverty stricken individuals, family comes first. Our priorities must be loyal to our immediate relatives’ well-being before anyone else. This is why it is a mitzvah to give charity to a relative first, before considering anyone else’s request.

Morrie Schwartz understood this well.

"The fact is, there is no foundation, no secure ground, upon which people may stand today if it isn’t the family. It’s become quite clear to me as I’ve been sick. If you don’t have the support and love and caring and concern that you get from a family, you don’t have much at all.

Love is so supremely important. As our great poet Auden said, 'Love each other or perish'. . .(If I had no family) this disease, what I’m going through, would be so much harder. I’m not sure I could do it. Sure, people would come visit, friends, associates, but it’s not the same as having someone who will not leave. It’s not the same as having someone whom you know has an eye on you, is watching you the whole time. This is part of what family is about, not just love, but letting others know there's someone who is watching out for them. . .what I call, your spiritual security. . .Nothing else will give you that. Not money. Not fame. . . Not work." (Tuesdays with Morrie)

All this is true. What is also true is that there is nothing worse than a family fight. How many stories have we heard of siblings who haven’t spoken to each other for the last 30 years due to a (often financially related) misunderstanding molehill that became a mountain?

How can we build positive family relationships? How can we create a home environment which fosters sensitivity and consideration for another’s view? How can we avoid horrible family fights?

There really is no other option than to teach our kids, at a young age, the significance of communication. As every family therapist will tell you, effective communication always wards off severe arguments. If people can communicate properly, they will know how to control and prevent an argument from becoming a genuine feud.

One way to accomplish this is to create a specific occasion for family sharing. Dinner would be a perfect time for such a venture. Turn off the TV and the cell phone. Let voicemail do its job. Talk, share, listen, agree, disagree -- effectively communicate.

During a meal, people are apt to make eye contact with each other. This is an integral component of being a good listener. All of us need to be heard; it validates us. Mealtime is when family members can express themselves. This helps us feel important. And when we listen instead of talk, we meet this same need for others. Usually, families who eat supper together don't just communicate well at mealtime; they do it constantly.

Children who grow up in families who regularly eat dinner together have been shown in studies to become much more successful in life than those who do not. Research by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has indicated that the more often a child eats dinner with his or her family, the less likely that child is to smoke, drink or use illegal drugs. The difference of even one more night of family supper shifts the statistics.

Fostering the family unit must be a top priority in our lives. We must never lose sight of this ‘family’ value.

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