“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln
There is so much to think about, and mourn, in the developing aftermath of the Chaim Walder saga. Like how we need to do a much better job in preventing sexual abuse and protecting, listening to, and supporting those who claim to have been violated, even when they’re “just little kids.”
But while we want to help, many of us feel like there is little that we can do to change things. The authorities, the mental health people, the children advocates, it’s their job. We’re just here to read up on the latest, bemoan this most recent tragedy, share our horrified views on our favorite platform, and move on.
What else can we do?
I submit that there are two things that every adult can do, particularly adults who have or who have relationships with children.
The first is to educate. Let kids know that there are boundaries and that the boundaries must be maintained. Give them permission – insist, actually – to share anything that doesn’t seem to fit within the boundaries, even if they’re not sure and even if the alleged violator is someone that they’re supposed to respect, like a teacher or therapist.
The second is to understand and control our own power, a lesson delivered to the greatest of all men.
“And the L-rd said to Moshe: ‘Go and descend, for your people whom you have lifted out of the land of Egypt have been corrupted.’” (Shemos 32:7) What is the meaning of “go and descend”? R’ Elazar said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moshe: Moshe, descend from your greatness. Isn’t it only for the sake of Israel, so that you may serve as an emissary, that I granted you prominence; and now that Israel has sinned, why do I need you?” (Berachos 32a)
As this passage makes clear, power, even in the hands of our greatest, humblest leader, is only useful when there is a purpose. Power for its own sake is corrupting and destructive.
As parents, we hold tremendous power. We control where we live, where our kids go to school, and so many other aspects of their lives. Such power, if used correctly, is a tool to help our children grow and develop in the way we deem best.
When we use our power in controlled, loving ways, we demonstrate to our children what “good power” looks like. It is strong, consistent, attentive, helpful, and always used to benefit the child. It also gives them insight into what “bad power” can look like: secretive, flattering, manipulative, critical, and worse.
Haim Ginot, child psychologist and advocate, once wrote these powerful words about the classroom teacher. In my opinion, they apply to all parents, teachers, guardians, and adults who care for or interact with children.
“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized.”
Each day, we have opportunity to exercise power towards the children in our care. If we use it positively, we demonstrate that we understand why we were empowered while also taking a step forward in the fight to protect our children. If not, G-d forbid, we are sowing the seeds that allow perpetrators like Walder to feed off our most vulnerable.
Rabbi Dr. Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach, organizational consultant, and sought after trainer and lecturer. He holds a doctorate in human and organizational psychology, as well as two master’s degrees in education and educational leadership, respectively.