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Public Faces, Private Lives: A 13-Year-Old Boy's Wisdom

12/12/2011 04:55 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012

"The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint." --Socrates, with dispute about attribution

Sometimes you get lucky and you realize (in the midst of worrying about war, famine and the economy) that Socrates is still quite wrong. Hope enters.

Recently I went to my cousin's son's bar mitzvah. For those unfamiliar with the ritual, tucked inside the prayer and the readings is the d'var Torah. It is here that the bat mitzvah girl or bar mitzvah boy interprets a portion of the Torah, giving their personal sermon.

The bar mitzvah came while I was in the midst of speaking at Jewish Book Festivals about my novel, "The Murderer's Daughters," and family violence, stressing how this private act can be so at odds from one's public persona. How many times have we all read about a neighbor saying, "but he seemed like the best guy in the world!" after a man murdered his wife?

We wrestle with demons. Below the surface, who doesn't have malevolent words waiting to bubble up? With batterers, these moments boil over behind closed doors. They claim it's because they can't control themselves, because they have "buttons" that are pushed, when, in truth, it's because they are choosing not to control themselves.

Most of us have yelled at, been nasty to and spread our moods more on our family then we'd ever dare with our bosses -- not because we love our boss more, or because our boss never angers us. It's because we have control, and we choose when to use it.

Too often, we choose not to use it at home.

Which brings me to my young cousin. After talking myself hoarse, perhaps a bit too proud of my speechifying, my cousin's d'var Torah stunned me. At 13, speaking simpler and clearer than I ever did, he showed that he understood exactly what "behind closed doors" means:

Shabbat Shalom. When I read through my Vayera portion, the parts that peaked my interest involved Abraham and Lot's actions regarding their family members. It seemed that these biblical figures were more concerned with the lives of strangers than with the well-being of their family members.

When G-d is ready to destroy Sodom, Abraham tries to persuade G-d to save the inhabitants, saying, 'What if there should be fifty innocent in the city; will you then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?'

Compare that with Abraham's actions in Chapter 22, when Abraham offers his son as commanded by G-d. Abraham puts Isaac on the altar. He's ready to kill him. He doesn't try to persuade G-d to save his son.

Abraham argues with G-d to save the lives of strangers in Sodom, but does not question G-d's command to sacrifice his own son.

Abraham is not the only biblical figure prepared to sacrifice family members. In Chapter 19, two angels, disguised as strangers, go to the city of Sodom to warn Lot to leave before it is destroyed. However, they are met by angry townspeople who circle the house and plan to harm these strangers. Lot offers his daughters to the townspeople in exchange for the stranger's safety, saying, 'Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.'

That's a disturbing way to treat your daughters. The commentary to that verse notes that this is part of a system where 'a patriarch possessed absolute power over the members of his clan...' Lot could basically do anything to his family members. Daughters were not valued at that time. However, there is a big difference between not valuing a daughter as much as a son, and offering her to an angry crowd in exchange for the safety of strangers.

In both cases, leaders try to protect strangers, while ready to sacrifice members of their family without a fight. It reminds me of politicians and other public figures who appear to work hard to help the people they serve, but don't seem to be good to their families. It surprises me that someone who is a public leader would not necessarily treat his or her family well. Isn't your family made up of the people who are most important to you? What makes it hard to treat your family the way you treat others in public?

Maybe the person who is famous is used to getting attention and praise for what they do in public, but at home they're just another member of the family, and do not receive such praise. It raises the issue of how someone behaves in public, versus how they behave in private with their family. Everyone, not just famous people, acts differently in public than they do privately. I am no exception.

My sister and I get into daily, if not hourly, fights about everything from who walks the dog, to who empties the dishwasher, to who gets to use the computer. However, when we are together in public, we try to act more mature and civilized toward each other. Maybe when there are other people around, their presence makes you act in a more polite fashion. However, behind closed doors, with people you live with, the barriers fall, and we feel more comfortable around each other and express what we are feeling.

My dad is also no exception. Growing up he shared a room with his twin brother, my Uncle Richard, and there were apparently no boundaries on how they spoke with and treated each other. Just ask my grandmother. At college my father learned to bite his tongue and not share every feeling with that roommate.

I wonder whether we all get too comfortable with our loved ones. Even though we wouldn't do what Abraham and Lot did, we don't always treat our family the way we should.

We certainly wouldn't hurt our family members, or knowingly expose them to harm, but that does not mean that we always treat them properly. Maybe sometimes we need to treat family like strangers, in terms of the respect that we give them. We have to watch what we do privately, and how we treat each other behind closed doors. We should treat our families the same whether people are looking or not. Shabbot Shalom." (David Isaacs, age 13, November 2011.)

At bar mitzvah age, a boy is supposed to become a young man, with moral awareness and sensitivity, able to take responsibility for his actions. It is when a young man can analyze and interpret, not just memorize, biblical stories. It is when a boy, among many other signs of maturity, realizes the consequence of his actions.

Mazel tov, David. You are there.