There has been quite a bit of public conversation about the troubling issue of bullying. I watched CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s week-long Town Hall meetings on the issue and the new study results. I was alternately moved and upset, and I’m now deeply concerned. It seems like we need to have ongoing and consistent vigilance by all of us to prevent bullying. As a parent, I am concerned of course that our children never be bullied but I am also concerned as well that my child never be a bully. Our children’s school has a bullying policy and even a good curriculum, but I am curious about a Jewish frame for this conversation. What are some Jewish sources and even practices that we can draw on to help children become sensitive and caring people? I would like to begin introducing some real tangible actions in addition to conversations with our children and family.
First, for those who may have missed it, this was the CNN headline: “Schoolyard bullying not just preying on the weak.” A new study commissioned by “Anderson Cooper 360°” found that the stereotype of the bully picking on the weak doesn’t tell the whole tale. The fresh research shows that quite a number of students are part of “social combat” — a constant verbal and physical contest to control the highest of the social hierarchy.
“Kids are caught up in patterns of cruelty and aggression that have to do with jockeying for status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist who worked with “Anderson Cooper 360°” on the pilot study.
“It’s really not the kids that are psychologically troubled who are on the margins or the fringes of the school’s social life. It’s the kids right in the middle, at the heart of things, often, typically highly, well-liked, popular kids who are engaging in these behaviors,” Faris said. “When kids increase in their status, on average they tend to have a higher risk of victimization as well as a higher risk of becoming aggressive.”
The Jewish angle on this is huge. This new approach seems to indicate that bullying is less about one stand-out cruel person and more about a larger social dynamic. We are all part of a sensitive social structure, meaning each of us is responsible for what transpires within it. Bullying is not merely about the individual bully’s inability to cease and desist from mistreating others. Rather, it is about the role we all play in contributing to our collective, social community.
Jewish tradition is full of teachings that get to the heart of these issues. From the classic “do not stand idly by your brother’s blood” found in the Book of Leviticus to the standard “let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own” of Pirke Avot. Our ethical Mussar tradition also speaks to the issues of the inner work needed to become the best possible person. Adopting a Mussar practice would go a long way toward building an awareness of issues of how we treat “the other.”
However, I would like to take another approach: The path of prayer. If it’s important it has a prayer and, believe it or not, we have anti-bullying prayers aplenty in our tradition. As you consider these four prayers, keep in mind that the Hebrew word for prayer, l’hitpallel is reflexive, indicating these are prayers of introspection. These short affirmations can go far in helping individuals develop a stance through the day. These active daily pronouncements can prepare us for the intricate interactions that fill our days.
The Arizal, the holy rabbi and mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria of 16th-century Safed, would include this prayer before the morning services. He urged his disciples to ritually accept upon themselves the mitzvah of loving their fellow each and every day by declaring it aloud. That to me says wow. We are all aware of the Golden Rule, but what does it mean to consciously set out to fulfill it before having the audacity to turn to God with our own requests? Here is the short declaration: “I hereby take upon myself the positive commandment of, ‘And you should love your friend as yourself.’” What a huge daily affirmation — it cannot help but set us up for a day of peace and good intentions.
Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk, 18th-century rabbi and one of the great founding rebbes of the Chassidic movement, created an even longer prayer to follow morning services. Here is a paraphrase and loose translation: “Put into our hearts the ability for each of us to see the strengths and not the flaws of our friends’ characters and help us to speak with each and every one of our friends with honesty and pleasantness and let not any hatred enter into any of us for any of our friends. Strengthen our connections with love and with composure.”
The nuances of this prayer are quite interesting and an honest estimation of the struggles each of us has. This remarkable meditation for the start of the day cannot help but marshal the power of an entire community that would commit itself to its recitation.
Though it is a more well-known prayer from our three-times a-day Amidah, it never ceases to surprise me. It closes the greatest articulation of our people’s collective hopes, dreams and aspirations, spanning from redemption to resurrection, by pulling it all together and asking the Almighty to simply help us guard our lips and give us strength to handle those who might mistreat us. “My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. May my soul be silent to them that curse me and may my soul be still like the dust.” If only we could have that prayer realized!
Last in the supplication category: The prayer traditionally recited before the bedtime shema. Talk about trying to get a good night’s sleep — try this one before drifting off: “Master of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me — whether against my body, my honor or against anything of mine, whether it was done accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely — I forgive all. May no person be punished because of me.” Letting go of it all is a powerful exercise never to be underrated.
Taken together, these prayers and affirmations speak to the clearly identified issues at hand — that life with people is a complicated endeavor, rife with complexity. A short prayer can go a long way.