June 13, 2024
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The Worst Mother-in-Law on Record

The following might qualify as Gemara’s most horrifying story. Shabbat 26a relates (slightly modified translation from the William Davidson translation):

A mother-in-law who hated her daughter-in-law said to her: Go adorn yourself with balsam oil. She went and adorned herself. When she came, her mother-in-law said to her: Go light the lamp. She went and lit the lamp. She caught fire and was consumed.

While the Mishna (Yevamot 15:4) and Gittin (2:7) acknowledges the hostility that sometimes exists between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, the depth of the hatred, in this case, is sickening. Why does the Gemara inform us of such depraved behavior? What lessons emerge from this awful episode?

Possibility #1:
The Hapless Daughter-in-Law

One may understand the daughter-in-law as a simpleton. If so, the mother-in-law taking advantage of her innocent daughter-in-law typifies everyone’s potential to engage in the worst behavior. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik understands Amalek as “everyman,” exemplifying every human being’s potential to sink to the moral abyss. Witnessing a cultured nation such as Germany engage in the most vicious and sadistic activities imaginable is a sobering reminder of this very uncomfortable reality.

Possibility #2: The Overly Obedient Daughter-in-Law

It is also possible that the daughter-in-law is not a simpleton. Instead, she felt so intimidated by her mother-in-law that she preferred dying than to disregard her directives. The daughter-in-law’s behavior brings to mind a dysfunctional interaction between a South Korean pilot and co-pilot that led to disaster (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/lack-of-cockpit-communication-recalls-1999-korean-airlines-crash-near-london/2013/07/08/0e61b3ca-e7f5-11e2-a301-ea5a8116d211_story.html)

The investigation that followed revealed a remarkable dynamic in the cockpit that has been linked to the hierarchical structure of the Korean culture.

When the plane took off after dark, the pilot’s cockpit indicator called an artificial horizon wasn’t working. The co-pilot’s was, as was an auxiliary artificial horizon dial located on the dashboard between them.

When the pilot began to execute a planned banked turn, the horizon instrument in front of him didn’t register that the plane had tilted on an appropriate angle. Unable to see that the plane already had banked, he continued to bank farther, even though a warning buzzer sounded nine times in the cockpit.

The plane’s wing tore into the ground. All four crew members died.

The plane’s pilot was Park Duk-kyu, a 57-year-old former fighter pilot in the South Korean air force. The first officer was Yoon Ki-sik, 33, who had far less experience.

The report said that though Yoon was communicating correct information to the tower, Park spoke at him in a “derogatory” fashion, saying, “Make sure you understand what ground control is saying before you speak.”

Seconds later, he barked: “Answer them! They are asking how long the delay will be.”

“By making these comments, it is considered that the commander contributed to setting a tone that discouraged further input from other crew members, especially the first officer,” the report said.

When the plane went into its ill-fated bank less than a minute into the flight, the first officer said nothing, even though the instrument in front of him indicated that the plane was turned almost sideways, the report said.

Author Malcolm Gladwell examined the Korean culture’s influence in airplane cockpits in his 2008 book “Outliers.”

“Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s,” Gladwell said in an interview with Fortune magazine just after the book came out. “What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.”

In their formal recommendations, British investigators called on Korean Air to revise its company culture and training “to promote a more free atmosphere between the captain and the first officer.”

Sadly, capitulation in a dangerous direction is quite common. I once witnessed a mother who could not muster the courage to stop an in-law relative from feeding food to her toddler that would trigger an allergic reaction. Baruch Hashem, her husband intervened just in time. Halacha emphasizes honoring parents and in-laws. Our story, though, teaches us to disregard deleterious directives.

One should similarly resist pressure to violate Torah law even if the pressure comes from authority figures such as parents, as Rashi (Vayikra 19:3 s.v. V’Et Shabtotai Tishmoru) to this week’s parsha teaches.

Conclusion

The Gemara’s horrifying story reminds us that although respect is always in order, sometimes disobedience is essential. One should never, in any context, submit to a superior’s abusive orders that run counter to one’s wellbeing. May we have the courage and wisdom to know when to defer and when to speak up and disobey.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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