I never cease to be amazed by the seemingly endless opportunities we have to put our feet in our mouths. Over 2,000 years ago, the sage Shammai cautioned, “… say little, do much and greet everyone with a happy face.” Those words are as true today as they were then, perhaps even more so.
Because the Jewish people may view themselves as one big family, we may cross the line into a familiarity that can be hurtful, often because of a carelessly uttered remark. I was reminded of this just the other day when I was speaking with a neighbor. We were talking about our children and, knowing he had only one, I chided him as I’ve done a number of times. “It’s about time for one more, no?” It was at that moment that his wife, who was gardening near us, got up abruptly and went inside.
I thought nothing of it until I looked up to see my neighbor’s face. “Listen, man” he said. “Please don’t joke about that anymore. We’ve suffered two miscarriages this last year and it’s been really tough.”
Open mouth. Insert foot.
With the best of intentions, I managed to cross the line from being friendly to being insensitive and hurtful, without even trying. Why did I think it was appropriate to say what I did? Why is it considered OK to even inquire about another couple’s family planning process? Was my neighbor the first person who had to endure my well-meaning pokes and chides, forcing him to make light of a terribly personal and painful experience? Almost certainly not, but he will be the last.
In our communities, our schools, parks and synagogues, there are couples struggling to achieve the families they’ve dreamed of. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a growing number of couples, more than 15 percent, struggle with infertility. They are our friends, our neighbors and us, and it’s time we decided to be a lot more considerate and a lot less stupid and clumsy about how we try to express support and encouragement to couples who want children.
Of course, when we ask, we mean well. The question “When will you have children?” may be an expression of confidence and support: “I think you are great and would make a wonderful parent. I think you’ll raise wonderful children, and I think our community and world would be better off if you did.” This is often the intention behind the question. But it’s heard differently.
“When will you have children?” can just as easily be heard as: “When will you become full members of our community? When will you realize your full potential? What’s wrong with you anyway?”
The Talmud in Tractate Sukkah reminds us, “If regarding matters that are normally performed publicly, the Torah commands us ‘to walk modestly,’ how much more so in matters that are usually performed in private.”
In a conversation, we may be circumspect about bringing up work for fear someone is about to be laid off, and we may shy away from asking about school or that last test because we don’t want to put someone on the spot or cause discomfort. Think about how much more cautious we should be about inserting ourselves into the areas of people’s lives that are deeply private and personal.
So the next time you’re about to open your mouth and insert your foot, think again.
Rabbi Joshua Fenton is the associate director of Jewish LearningWorks.