Note: The topic here is NOT about vindictive parents who deny grandparents access to their own grandchildren.
It is also not about whether a parent is halachically allowed to do such a thing and if so, when.
Those are totally separate topics.
Yes, Rena was denied access to her own grandchildren, but that was a symptom of a greater problem.
This post focuses on Hashem's MESSAGE behind the actions and not the specific actions.
A Brief Analysis of What's Going on with Explosive People
And this is pretty common in such people.
They don't feel so bad about for 1 of 2 reasons (depending on the situation):
- They don't mean anything bad by it, they don't mean it personally or with hatred; they experience each outburst as a release of unbearable tension.
- They experience it as righteous anger. They explode only because they care so much about a particular issue or because it legitimately bothers them so much.
Furthermore, they consider their explosions equal to any other flaw, such as struggling with being organized, davening with kavanah, being shy, etc.
The problem with this attitude is that the Torah relates with extreme severity to any expression of anger or any words that cause pain—much more so than many other flaws.
Yissurim as Heavenly Messages (They aren't always just atonements.)
Though she managed to live much longer than her grossly insensitive doctor predicted, she succumbed to the disease a couple of years later.
Now, in certain well-meaning non-Jewish circles, they consider disease the result of stress & trauma, in addition to luck-of-the-draw and poor physical health habits.
And this certainly proves true at times.
...Judaism tends to view disease as a Heavenly Hint to get one's act together.
Sefer Chareidim presents a long list of what sin disease or pain in each limb corresponds to.
A lot of references in Chazal to the meaning behind disease or pain in different areas can be found in English in Rav Shalom Arush's Garden of Healing.
Needless to say, other aspects influence health, such as rectifications necessary due to past-life behaviors, and so on.
We cannot know all the reasons for suffering.
However, this idea of using disease or pain to call attention to middot in need of improvement in an INNATE part of Torah Judaism.
How many times do we come across the idea stated that in times of suffering, we must examine our deeds?
This is a CORE TORAH VALUE.
A Discussion of a Fundamental (Yet Much Despised) Torah Ideal
But it often works!
Meaning, many times, people who work on the behaviors associated with the particular problematic body part find their pain or disease vanishes on its own.
Or if not on its own, it vanishes completely with normal treatment.
Furthermore, not always are diseases associated with a specific body part.
Fevers, flu, and the like affect the entire body.
Furthermore, like Chazal say, one should EXAMINE one's deeds; it could be more than meets the eye.
And many times, changing behaviors and thought patterns cure pain & disease.
Is this always true?
Hashem has His own reasons for things and doing things bibbity-bobbity-boo doesn't always work.
Just because working on that particular issue doesn't cure things 100% of the time doesn't mean it never works (when it definitely works a lot) and doesn't mean it isn't worth trying.
Also, because most people either don't know or find it too difficult to do this, it's hard to get enough data together to prove it efficacy.
But people who ignore this idea do themselves a disfavor.
As hard & painful as it is to accept pain or disease as a Heavenly Hint toward self-improvement, if it makes the pain go away or cures the disease, then why not at least TRY it?
The Purpose of Life
In fact, self-improvement is the reason we exist.
Hashem placed us in This World FOR THIS REASON.
If you ignore or justify your bad middot, you are not fulfilling your purpose in This World!
And you will either suffer even more here, come back in yet another lifetime to rectify even more of what you failed to do previously, or spend extra time getting cleaned up in Gehinnom.
I find this idea inspiring, but some people can't stand to hear the din/judgement aspect.
For me, it reassures me to know that as grueling and agonizing as it is to break certain poor middot, NOT doing so causes even more agony later.
So it makes me feel good to know I'm doing myself such a big favor and also that any pain I experience here is actually not as painful as later, plus Hashem loves you SO MUCH for even making the smallest baby-step in self-improvement.
You don't have to be perfect; you just have to try.
And I find that empowering, reassuring, and happy.
The Truth about "Breaking" Middot
I've done it and know I need to do even more.
It takes courage (which is not my strong point).
And especially if part of your fear is the response of others, it takes a frightening amount of courage.
The first time can be the hardest.
If it's something in yourself only, it can be extremely painful.
You can mamash cry & shake from the pressure of changing a deeply ingrained behavior or belief.
You can feel shattered temporarily.
For example, sincere converts to Judaism from church-based religion & bnei Noach often experience an agonizing transition in giving up their belief in their gospels and in a polytheistic-portrayed-as-monotheistic trinity.
But after the initial "break," they often describe incredible relief at embracing the Truth, plus clarity, meaning, and joy.
And how does breaking middot relate to Rena's ultimately fatal illness?
What Do AUTHENTIC Torah Sources Say about Causing Others Emotional Pain with Our Words or Behavior?
The prohibition of ona'at devarim is mid'Oreita—it's stated outright in black-and-white in the Torah (Parshat Behar, VaYikra 25, Verse 14:
אַל־תּוֹנ֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ אֶת־אָחִֽיו
...al tonu ish et achiv.
...you shall not wrong/aggrieve one another.
"Onaat devarim [verbal abuse] is worse than monetary abuse [deceit]..."
In fact, it's so important, the Mesillat Yesharim included that statement within Chapter 11: B'Pirtei Middat Haneikyut/Concerning the Particulars of the Trait of Cleanliness.
Think about how the prohibition against stealing is so strong, Hashem placed it as a Universal Law and also in the Ten Commandments.
Yet ona'at devarim is WORSE than that?
And many people need to realize that ona'at devarim includes emotional abuse as well.
Toras Avigdor presented an impressive & gob-smacking transcript from Rav Avigdor Miller about ona'at devarim and everything that entails:
A Myrtle Rising post on that dvar Torah appears here:
The early 19th-century masterpiece Pele Yoetz, written by the great tzaddik and talmid chacham Rav Eliezer Papo, states:
The rule is that anyone who pains his fellow with his words — this is ona'at devarim.
And he must not do and must not say anything for which there is even a one-in-a-thousand chance that it could cause pain to his fellow.
Having said all that, it doesn't mean you must always be silent.
A person determined to run off a cliff may not like you telling them not to do it, but if it prevents them from dying, it's worth it.
Likewise, sometimes we see people continuously making bad decisions, halachically problematic decisions, hurting themselves...and even though they don't want to hear the truth—it even hurts them to hear the truth—it's sometimes a favor to tell them.
If they really won't listen, then the laws of speech generally recommend you NOT say anything, but some situations demand you say something.
And even the best people can mess up with this.
We all misjudge situations sometimes.
All the truly great rabbanim are very careful with their speech, but if they need to say things people don't like, then they say them.
These same truly great rabbanim also DO things people don't like.
But if the mitzvah at hand holds more importance than people's feelings, so they do it anyway.
Judaism isn't about black-and-white thinking.
We should be complex thinkers, able to apply principles according to individual situations.
When we can't, we should consult with a knowledgeable Jew who can.
The Frightening Truth about Ona'at Devarim
Even when you mean well, aren't really so angry, or think you're kidding?
Here's Rav Avigdor Miller:
You should know that I consider ona’as devarim the most serious michshol in marriage.
For many years I’ve dealt with people coming to me.
Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I didn’t succeed, but I can tell you that most of the time the troubles began with ona’as devarim...
Even though they don't mean it & completely forgive each other, even though they love each other underneath at all, even though they nurse each other through illness with complete devotion until the end ...Rav Miller casts doubt on whether the Heavenly Beit Din will just pass it over.
After all, the behavior itself is wholly forbidden, whether it bothers the other person or not.
So when husbands and wives are busy insulting each other all year long, and so they say “We don’t really mean it; we actually love each other, we’re living together so many years,” that won’t take off the severity of the sins.
Because it actually hurts at the time.
And they don’t have any regret!
They trample these sins underfoot, and those are the sins that will be m’subin lo l’yom hadin.
But Hashem doesn't.
As another example of how severely Hashem looks upon ona'at devarim, Rav Miller even attributed certain early deaths to causing others emotional pain!
Here's just one example:
Once there was a girl – a young woman. And she was riding in a taxicab in Brooklyn. And the taxicab bumped into another car.
And together they bumped into a telephone pole. And the pole fell on her and she died.
Nebach, it killed that girl.
Now, I’m not capable of telling you anything but I’ll tell you something that happened with a girl. Maybe it was the same girl. I don’t want to say.
Once there was a poor teacher and she was trying to make a living.
You know that it’s not always easy making a living. So she was teaching a class of girls. And there were forty girls in the class.
One of the girls in the back of the class mimicked the teacher’s voice. And she did it all the time.
All the time!
And the teacher was very much embarrassed. Very embarrassed. Very hurt. But what could she do? It’s her parnasah. So she kept quiet.
She kept quiet but she was terribly hurt.
Now maybe this girl forgot about what she did.
And maybe the teacher forgot about her pain.
But Hakodosh Boruch Hu doesn’t forget. He might give you time to fix your mistake – to do teshuvah – but when you don’t, and instead you forget about it, He doesn’t forget.
You hear that?! Hakodosh Boruch Hu doesn’t forget!
Whether the teacher remembered or forgave later wasn't the main issue. The girl (who was around 21 at the time of the crash) never did teshuvah. She never apologized or fixed this middah.
She wasn't even engaged in what we consider conventional ona'at devarim, like shouting or insulting.
She didn't even SAY anything specific. Her behavior of mimicking did the job.
And her behavior HURT.
Here's what Rav Miller says about your view of the behavior and Hashem's view of the behavior:
You’re needling him, you’re saying a sharp word, that rips at his heart.
You might not even notice it, you expect everyone to just have thick skin and bear it, but just because you’re oblivious to other people’s feelings that will not be an excuse on the Day of Judgement.
Husbands and wives are going to be held accountable in the next world for very great wrongs, heaps, mountains of aveiros, mountains of unkind words, and glum faces that they showed to each other instead of being quiet.
But they’re constantly sticking daggers in each other, and these daggers are going to rise up on the yom hadin, and they’re going to be the most dangerous, fearful opponents, fearsome opponents.
A person will be amazed to find that he has enemies that are attacking him and accusing him and pointing a finger at him on the yom hadin [Day of Judgement].
All because of what husbands and wives said to each other.
All because of what neighbors say to one another.
Even what friends say to each other.
How Does Hashem See Things?
Here's another tidbit...
An organization responsible for helping children with learning disabilities dealt with Rena a lot.
And Rena, because she cared passionately about her learning-disabled son and genuinely wanted the best for him, regularly shouted and raged at the people in the organization.
I don't know how often because I do not know how often they encountered Rena.
But when she dealt with them, she yet again suffered unbearable tension that demanded release.
A person working in this organization genuinely cared about children and did everything she could to help them.
She even took a young Down syndrome student into her home for 2 years when an potential adoption fell through and the girl's foster home could no longer keep her.
She also took in 7 children from 2 different families at the same time when their mothers suffered post-partum depression.
This same woman also traveled to the former USSR to help fellow Jews.
She also experienced heartbreaking tragedies I'm not mentioning for reasons of privacy.
And despite her strength of character, she still found Rena's tirades terribly stressful.
So, in light of everything the Torah and its Sages say about ona'at devarim, how do you think Hashem "felt" about Rena's well-intentioned, yet terribly stressful behavior toward this woman?
Furthermore, rather than getting Rena's son what he needed, her behavior made it more difficult for the staff because they dreaded dealing with her.
And how do you think Hashem viewed Rena's tirades toward this staff of her fellow Jews trying to help Jewish children succeed?
Again, setting aside our own bias, natures, and cultural attitudes...how does HASHEM view such behavior?
The Pain of Teshuvah can Cancel Out the Pain of Punishment
What if, instead of barreling on with her explosive behavior even when denied access to her grandchildren, she decided to face the terribly painful & gruelingly difficult work of controlling her outbursts?
Do you know how difficult it is to put the lid on unbearable tension just boiling to burst out?
I do. I also have a temper. Not like Rena's, but it's definitely there. And I've definitely been in situations in which I felt like a roiling volcano about to erupt, and it HURTS to put a cap on it.
I don't always succeed.
And Rena wouldn't always succeed either, especially at the beginning.
But she would at least transition to the Heavenly category of TRYING.
And depending on the situation, self-control doesn't always bring the feelings of serenity, joy, and success that many self-help gurus claim it does.
In other words, BEING good doesn't always FEEL good...at least, maybe not in the beginning.
So if Rena had faced the grueling agony of control her temper after 50 years of letting it blow, would she still have gotten ill?
Would the long-term pain, stress, agony, and frustration of breaking such a difficult middah prevented her from experiencing the pain, stress, frustration, and agony of illness and chemo?
And would she have lived longer by showing Hashem she was doing the work He put her here to do?
Because Rena was so good in other ways, I assume the years of disease & suffering atoned for her lifetime of ona'at devarim and she is in a good place now.
(And the refined, sensitive daughter-in-law willingly named her own daughter after Rena. Plus I think Rena received access to her grandchildren again during her illness. If she didn't, it's because she was vulnerable to infections, and not because of her DILs.)
Can we know for certain the answer to the above question?
No, of course not.
But with everything I've ever read on the topic, the indications are definitely there.
As a popular frum song in Israel went:
"You need to go looking for Hashem before He comes looking for YOU."
And there's a good, healthy, hopeful lesson in that too.
A halachic discussion of ona'at devarim: