|Life Lessons: Break His Teeth|
|Written by The Heileger Chana Chaya|
Are we commanded to break our child’s teeth? The words of the Haggadah: “What does the wicked son say? What does all this mean to you?” Since he excludes himself from the community, and by excluding himself, he denies the basic principle of our faith. Therefore, you should break his teeth and make him feel uncomfortable by saying “it is because of this that Hashem did all these miracles for me when I went out of Egypt but not for him. Had he been there he would not have been redeemed.”
The holy Haggadah tells us that one of the children is wicked (a rasha) and tells us the remedy is to break his teeth and also tells us to exclude him.
Break his teeth? Am I reading this correctly? Exclude him? Is that what we are told to do to our child who already, as the text says, feels excluded? Do we exclude him even further?
May the Creator of the Universe forgive me for not agreeing on this with the holy rabbis (if I understand it correctly) who wrote the Haggadah. Millions of Jews read this paragraph in the Haggadah. I fear that they may take the advice at its basic level.
The Haggadah speaks of “The Four Sons.” Each is different. But isn’t that the case for everyone who has four children? … that they are not alike and that each brings with him a different challenge and, of course, a different blessing?
The wicked son, it says, is excluding himself. But why would a child exclude himself? From my experience, with too many children to count, a child excludes himself when he feels excluded. So does an adult. Understanding that the child is a rasha means to me that you don’t understand the child.
I wonder what would happen with that “wicked” son if people were to consistently believe in him. There are studies that show that a child who is believed-in becomes more honest and generally of better character. I don’t think we even need a study to know that.
It says to break his teeth.
What does that really mean? Some commentaries explain it as meaning to blunt his teeth or to set them on edge.
I have used the term “break my teeth” when explaining to people how I finally learned to read after being illiterate until my last year of high school.
You see, I was one of those kids who I am sure many people wanted to break my teeth and I did feel excluded. In the 4th grade, I was placed in a kindergarten class for the rest of the year. I thought I was lucky because the teacher took us to the park everyday.
By the time I reached the summer of my senior year in high school I had remained unable to learn how to read. My nickname with my peers was “Simple” which was a short way of calling me “Simple-Minded.” What it meant to me was that I was stupid. I was certainly confused. I felt kind of lost and small in a huge world of stuff that I felt unable to understand. One of my greatest confusions was how to decode a bunch of letters and words on a page.
I had a summer job on the beach in Far Rockaway as a mother’s helper for a baby and his 7 siblings. Neil, who had been a lifeguard, showed up wherever I happened to be. At first, I had no interest in Neil. But then as he persisted, I slowly began to like him and to enjoy spending time with him.
Pretty soon he was driving me home from the beach everyday in his sun-roofed Peugeot sports car. We went to movies together, played tennis together, went bike riding together, laughed a lot together, and over the summer we become inseparable. We were in love.
When the summer was almost ending, Neil brought me to his house in Long Island He talked often about his parents, stressing how educated each of them was, his father, a scientist and his mother the assistant principal of a junior high school. Neil, the pride and joy of his parents, was a premed student.
They weren’t particularly warm to me. But I didn’t give that much thought. After all, they weren’t the first ones to treat me like that.
The next day, as usual, before I went to work, I visited Neil at his lifeguard stand. As soon as he saw me, he handed me a book. I’m not sure of the title, because I wasn’t really able to read it. I looked up at him sitting in his tall lifeguard chair.
“Read the first four pages,” he drilled me.
I knew I couldn’t read that book or any other. “Does he know?” My heart was pounding. I took the book and stared at it. I slowly turned the pages. I looked at the first page and then went to the second and after I turned to the fourth page, I handed the book back to him.
“What did it say?” he snapped.
I mumbled… “I don’t know,”
It’s more than 40 year later and I still remember his words as if it were this morning:
“Well if you didn’t understand the first page, why did you go to the second page?”
I stood silently at the side of his tall lifeguard chair hoping he would reassure me. He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t even look at me.
My stomach churned. I felt a sense of panic. I went to work with the children I was assigned to, but was not really present as I went through the motions.
At home, after work, I hoped Neil would call and make it all better.
I couldn’t stop thinking about him, dreaming about being with him. The loneliness was torture - the contrast of going from such wonderful love to overwhelming emptiness. There was no one to comfort me.
I tried going on a date with someone else who had been interested in me all summer. We saw the movie Splendor in the Grass. It was the story of two teens in love who were forced to break-up because of his parents. The girl was so distressed that she tried to commit suicide. I so related.
I went home and cried and cried as I tried to fall asleep. But I stayed awake all night thinking and crying.
I realized that we weren’t together now because he found out I couldn’t read.
I didn’t know why I never learned to read. It’s not like I didn’t try. It was just so difficult to figure out what the letters on a page were saying. And when I could make out the pronunciation, I still couldn’t put it all together to make sense of what it meant. In school, I had been taken out for remedial instruction. But it just didn’t make a difference in my skills. In those days, no one knew about ADHD or dyslexia. If you couldn’t read, you were just stupid, and that’s what I used to tell myself after each struggle with the words on a page.
Now, my not being able to read created more than just heartache. Now, not being able to read was a catastrophe, for it meant I can’t have a boyfriend. I foresaw constant and repeated rejections in my future and visions of having no friends and no future family. All because I wasn’t smart enough, which showed up in my not being able to read. As I cried, the feelings of powerlessness turned into determination. “This will never happen to me again,” I assured myself. “I have to learn how to read.”
That Monday, after school, I went to the library and searched for a book that I could read. I tried so many different sections of books in that library. It became more and more frustrating when there wasn’t even one page in one book that I could read.
Finally, I snuck into the little-kids section, hoping no one from school would see me. I looked at some picture books - the ones with 5 or 6 words on a page. And there, I found a book that had a few words that I could read. I would have to figure out the rest. It was one of the books that others called baby books. But that did not matter today. That is what I was able to read, at least some of the words, anyway. I found a hidden corner of the library so that no one I knew would see me and make fun of me, or tell anyone else.
I sat there in the corner of the library, looking at the words of the book that had lots of colorful pictures. But it was not the pictures that interested me. It was the words. I wanted so much to read them. I struggled with almost every word. But I wouldn’t give-up. I literally “broke my teeth” on every word. “If I look at it long enough, I will get it,” I told myself. And I looked, and looked, and looked at the words. By the end of the 5th day with that book I was able to read it to myself.
Then, I looked for another book from the shelf. That, too, was a picture book, a baby book. I checked it out of the library and stayed with it until I finally fell asleep. By the end of the next day, I was able to read that book also.
After two weeks, I was able to read most of the picture books in the library. So I decided to try comic books. I used to be fascinated by the pictures of Archie and Veronica. But until now, I had to use my imagination to figure out what the words in the dialog circles meant. Now, I was determined. I opened the first page that had dialogue. I felt like weeping from the frustration. I couldn’t really read it. I took a deep breath and again told myself that if I look at it long enough I’ll get it. I forced myself to concentrate on the letters in the words and not the pictures of Veronica talking with Betty. I again, “broke my teeth” on every word. It was just so hard. But I couldn’t give up. If I did, I knew that my life would continue to be filled with rejection and heartache. I had to figure this out, no matter how long it took. By the following Friday, I was able to pick up almost any comic book and understand the gist of what it is saying. It wasn’t perfect. But I was on my way.
I went from comic books to Nancy Drew books. I read and read until I read my first real book. I was reading the classic, Exodus. I couldn’t put it down. Each page fascinated me and I understood it all.
In school, the guidance counselor called me in to commend me on my scholastic improvement.
By February, six months after that dreadful day at the side of Neil’s lifeguard chair, I was placed in the Honor’s English Literature class, where the students were assigned a new classic to read each week. I kept up and relished each day with each book. Reading and learning became my passion.
It makes me wonder if what is meant by “break his teeth” is to teach him how to learn. For some they must break their teeth, strain their brain, as I had to. Setting someone’s teeth on edge means getting them to fight back, as well. That is what it means to break one’s teeth. When excluded, when rejected we need to show our children how to fight back and use that to become successful.
Today I speed-read English. I am a licensed teacher of Spanish in NY, NJ and California, and I survive with Hebrew. But I really broke my teeth to do that.
Today, after a 34-year career as a teacher, I am Chana Klein, MSEd, PCC, EEMCP, ACG, PCACG, DIAMBP, NET, AGI. That is, I am a Certified Professional Coach, a Certified Eden Energy Medline Practitioner and have more Coaching and Alternative-Medicine certifications than anyone on the planet. I serve as the International Coach Federation (ICF) ADHD Leader and as an ICF Certification Assessor. I am the co-founder and Ethics Chairman of The Professional Association of ADHD Coaches. I am proficient in Chinese Medicine, Chinese Medicine Face Reading, Interactive Guided Imagery, Korean Hand Therapy, Sleep Medicine, Homeopathy and much more. I am an Autism Spectrum Expert. That and much more is the result of perennially breaking my teeth to learn more and more, breaking my teeth to fight back against the feeling of being stupid and against being excluded.
I think rather then telling us to break his teeth, the Haggadah is saying to get that child somehow to work hard at learning. Then, he will not be excluded. Perhaps it is telling us to break his teeth so that he will learn what he needs to know to be connected to God, to His people and to himself.
These are our children. It is just the beginning for them
To say that any of them is wicked or simple or any negative judgment is ignoring the fact that Avraham Avinu was a product of pagan civilization.
Moshe Rabbeinu was raised in the Egyptian palace. Perhaps the greatest of us start off as the simple one or the evil one mentioned in the Haggadah. Rabbi Akiva was considered an ignoramus who cannot learn. His father in law had said that if he had been able to do even one pasuk (passage), he would not have disowned his daughter when she married him. But it was Rabbi Akiva whose advice he later sought, not even knowing that this was the one he disowned.
We as parents, as teachers, as anyone in contact with that child, don’t know who a child will become. It is our role to let them, to encourage, to inform, to be a support.
No, it’s not easy. It’s not simple, and sometimes it’s not even clear.
But, it is our responsibility in order that our children may find their own greatness, and in order that we find ours.
Copyright ©Chana Klein 2011www.thespectrumcoach.com