By Rabbi Dan Lewin
The focus of the Torah readings these past two weeks is the infamous 10 plagues, which reach a peak in this portion. They are the ultimate demonstration of divine redemptive power, simultaneously punishing the cruel Egyptians while freeing the children of Israel from bondage, elevating them to a higher spiritual level that opens the door for their future development into a majestic nation.
Although seemingly simplistic, the precise description of how each plague plays out offers subtle yet meaningful symbolism. Within the barrage of intense imagery — staffs mysteriously turning into serpents, water becoming blood, frogs leaping into ovens, darkness spreading over Egypt, the silent dogs who never barked as the angel of death enters to wreak havoc, “an outstretched arm,” etc. — there are hidden eternal lessons.
One of the most pertinent points, a message about education, is smuggled between the lines of the scene that sets the stage for the series of plagues to unfold.
The right and left hand
Two essential ingredients in good education are love and discipline (not punishment, and certainly not abuse, but firm moral guidance). In Torah symbolism, these qualities — lovingkindness and discipline — are represented by “the right hand” and “left hand” respectively. Each is important. For example, a child raised without a nourishing supply of love from parents can develop all kinds of personality distortions and insecurities. Reprimands evoke early memories of pain and vulnerability from primary caregivers. The angry, hurt child inside then instinctively fights back through the mouth of the now adult.
On the flip side, if the educator fails to impart the proper dose of discipline, or to instill a healthy reverence for authority figures, this lack of structure or moral guidance can leave the recipient with a chaotic internal system. To be sure, Jewish ethics keenly conveys the message that elders don’t need to earn a youngster’s respect — the respect is implied. Even more so with parents, where honor and reverence stem not simply from age or position, but from the essential relationship. But teaching these values becomes part of educators’ responsibility early on.
In the absence of strong guidance, many youths run into trouble thinking that they are on equal footing with parents, teachers, elders or experts. The idea that they owe deference to someone repulses them. Viewing oneself as a barometer of insight — correct thought action or morality — becomes a huge pitfall, both for personal growth and interpersonal relationships.
Through no fault of the child, this perspective can become exaggerated through adulthood. When he or she is asked to comply with certain family traditions or social gestures, instead of simply trying to please their parents, the instinctive reaction of the now older child is, “Don’t tell me what to do!” Any ethical advice is seen as an infringement on their entitled individuality.
The unshakable foundation
While acknowledging the necessity of both love and discipline — using the right and left hand — the question when raising a child or grooming a student then becomes: On which of these qualities does the instructor place the most weight?
Addressing this important query, the Talmudic sages offer a well-known principle for navigating human relationships — and especially education — that one should (first) “draw close with the right hand and push away [rebuke] with the left.” The elementary message here is that love should be the dominant focus, but the child also needs the discipline to thrive. But when using the left hand, there is also the constructive approach and the harmful pathway.
Returning to our current Torah readings, Moses and Aaron repeatedly approach Pharaoh to demand, in the name of G d, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh continually refuses. Aaron’s staff then turns into a snake and, after the Egyptian magicians perform the same wondrous act, the staff of Aaron swallows their sticks.
An overlooked detail in the verse is that it does not say that Aaron’s snake swallowed the Egyptian snakes. Rather, only after his snake had turned back into a staff does it proceed to swallow up the Egyptian snakes. The esoteric commentaries derive a powerful lesson from this subtle addition in the sequence: “Swallowing” represents discipline. The owner of the staff, Aaron, is the biblical figure whose exemplary quality was an inexhaustible supply of love. “Be of the disciples of Aaron — loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the creatures and bringing them closer to Torah” (Ethics of Our Fathers). The symbolism behind the staff doing the swallowing, rather than a snake, coves the idea that effective discipline must flow from someone who cares.
As it pertains to parenting, there are moments wherein the child must be redirected, reprimanded or critiqued — in a healthy and instructive way. Love by itself is insufficient. But during those moments, the parent, educator or coach must make sure to remain emotionally removed, keeping any anger or frustration in check (like a staff, without the venom). More practically, rebuke should always be conveyed in a calm, collected way, backed by love.
This philosophy forms the basis of positive parenting and good education: The outside world, with its complex social dynamics and abundant competition, is often an unforgiving environment that brings many disappointments. And to properly deal with the inevitable challenges of life, a child must draw from a safe, nurturing and supportive relationship at home. But if that home environment is marked by excessive criticism or even subtle dismissal, without plenty of love, it can scar a sensitive child — who then carries that hurt and anger into adulthood, craving approval, struggling to find the peace and security so absent during the formative years of development. Furthermore, because he or she is still subconsciously dealing with the parent’s severity (or absence of love), there is added risk of repeating the pattern with one’s own children.
The same principle can be applied to how we think about and relate to ourselves — parenting the inner child. Exercising the “left hand,” arousing self-discipline, is crucial to succeeding in life. Whether this inner strength is channeled toward exercising restraint during physical activities — not overeating, time management or pushing oneself to keep in shape — or applied to more meaningful character development, such as introspection and healthy regrets over poor choices, especially those that ended up hurting others, holding oneself accountable is the key to personal growth.
Nevertheless, reflective condemnation or sadness over shortcomings must be held in check; the focus needs to be on using the right hand. More specifically, the foundation of our self-image should always be to appreciate and to value our positive potential. One small but powerful lesson from Aaron’s staff.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.