Shemot, 5778

Comfort is a blessing; the pursuit of comfort can be a curse

Suffering and Success

Why does every major accomplishment of the Jewish People seem to come at a terrible cost? Freedom came at the cost of centuries in slavery. Nationhood came at the cost of forty years of desert wandering, the death of a generation of Jews and uninvited battles with powerful tribes. Even in our times, the Jewish State seems to have been made possible by the horrors of the holocaust and it is kept viable through the constant sacrifices of beautiful young men and women to terror and war. Is suffering inherent particularly to Jewish success or is struggle a precondition to all success?

Discipline and Mastery

The Midrash[1] is troubled by this question. It introduces the parsha (weekly Torah portion), and in fact the book of Shemot (Exodus), with its analysis of a verse from Mishlei (Proverbs) 13.24:

חושך שבטו שונא בנו ואוהבו שחרו מוסר

 

“A father who spares the rod, scorns his son, whereas one who loves him would discipline him early.”

 

King Solomon (author of the Book of Proverbs) is not recommending corporal punishment, but rather the practice of mussar, discipline, as the Midrash continues to explain.

בנוהג שבעולם אדם שאומר לו חברו פלוני הכה לבנך יורד עמו עד לחייו ומה תלמוד לומר חושך שבטו שונא בנו ללמדך שכל המונע בנו מן המרדות סוף בא לתרבות רעה ושונאהו.

Normally, if one were told that another had beaten one’s child, he would challenge that person “to death.” So why would the verse suggest that withholding punishment from your own son is a sign of scorn?

This is to teach that if you withhold discipline from your son, he could ultimately become uncultured and cause you to later dislike and even scorn him.

Mussar is a word rich in meaning. It means discipline it means ethical behavior, it means character development. It also means struggle or suffering – from the word יסורים – because sadly, character does not develop without struggle. Growth and comfort are not bedfellows. We easily accept the correlation between suffering and success in the physical world where strength and record-breaking athletics are the outcomes of hard, disciplined, tenacious work often involving pain and suffering. We also know that in the fields of intellectual, artistic and spiritual accomplishment results are commensurate with effort. There is nothing comfortable about effort and hard work, and excellence doesn’t stem from indulgence.

We however appear to have difficulty with this correlation when it comes to character development. We seem to think that we can raise children of character from a place of comfort, without struggle. When children misbehave, some parents who are too timid to discipline them for fear of becoming unpopular with their children. Popularity and likeability have become higher values than discipline and honor. But, by withholding discipline, these parents stymie the growth of their children’s character and could be depriving them of greatness in later life, as we see in the continuation of the Midrash.

The Midrash holds Avraham, Yitzchak and King David accountable for the deviance of their respective sons, Yishmael, Eisav and Avshalom. These fathers felt attached to their beloved firstborns and were unable to discipline them with the mussar they needed. The implication is that had they disciplined these young men more effectively, they may have turned out to be great contributors to the Jewish People and to the world. Instead they founded movements of disruption, murder and plunder. The Midrash credits the greatness of Yitzchak, Ya’acov and King Shlomo to the early education they received from their fathers.

Chessed and Gevurah – Male and Female

I am feeling particularly introspective about the father-son relationship this week. Our only son, Moshe, to our delight, just announced his engagement, so the implications of this Midrash resonated deeply with me. Both parents are charged with the duty to discipline their children when they are young, yet according to the Torah, it is the father who is primary in this role; the mother’s role is to provide unconditional love. There is a reason for this role separation. Since discipline, by definition, entails conditions, the same person cannot both discipline a child and provide him or her with unconditional love; one of the two, either discipline or unconditionality, has to give in a single parent family.

The Creator designed the world in exquisite balance between the forces of Chessed (love and kindness) and Gevurah (mastery). Like the positive and negative poles that make electricity possible, chessed and gevurah are the polarities of human energy that give individuals the power within about which I have written the past three weeks. People who manifest only one of these poles at the expense of the other, often lack this compelling inner power so essential to any form of leadership and influence.

The poles of Chessed and Gevurah, which, when blended create the symphonic harmony of Tiferet, relate to the Kabalistic idea of זוכרא ונוקבא, the male and female energies which manifest in every part of nature, not just in human and animal organisms. Gevurah (mastery) aligns with male energy and Chessed (love and kindness) aligns with female energy. These ideas of male and female energies should not be confused with male and female genders, although they are linked. Everyone has within them both energies. Generally, the female energy is more dominant in women and the male energy in men. Recently, as genders in the Western world have been converging, this differentiation is no longer as pronounced.

Gender Convergence

Gender convergence diminishes the male-female energy between men and women in relationships. It also disturbs the chessed-gevurah polarity with which children are raised, with significant consequences.

Both father and mother are fully capable of disciplining their children and both can show them softness and love. The difference between the father and the mother roles, although not politically correct to discuss, is that according to Kabbalah fathers are designed to discipline their children with no negative consequence to a loving relationship with them, and mothers are designed so that their softness in no way diminishes their children’s respect for them. When parents work in unison their children are raised in the energetic space created by the זוכרא ונוקבא poles, the polarity of discipline and love which produces the harmony of Tiferet in these children.

When genders converge, this polarity is disrupted. Mothers now often project a more male energy, and many fathers are softening, projecting a more feminine energy. The space between the poles is narrowed, and instead of Tiferet (harmony) being created by the blend of two opposite poles, children are exposed to a single force of male and female energy averaged out in a tepid half-way point which is neither clearly male nor clearly female. Tiferet cannot result from an average between chessed and gevurah; Tiferet is a symphonic blend of them both. When parents raise their children without clearly different male and female energies, they deny them the clarity of paternal discipline which teaches them mastery and the unconditional love of a mother which trains them in empathy. Children who have not experienced the disciplinary demands of a father balanced by the unconditional love of a mother find it hard to create this balance in their own lives. They struggle to establish harmony between discipline and love, toughness and softness, and mastery and empathy. When couples raise their children “equally,” meaning parental roles are shared rather than split, the children often display the same symptoms as children raised in single parent homes. They lack either in self-mastery or in empathy, or in both.

G-d and His Children

What about G-d? Is He a “single parent?” How does that work for us? Hashem is not a single parent. Hashem combines both the זוכרא ונוקבא (male and female) poles in the ways He treats and leads us. He is both father and mother to us, both Avinu (our loving parent) and Malkeinu (our demanding King). He loves us and grants us immeasurable success and blessing. But he is not afraid to raise us with discipline so that we do not ever abuse these blessings.

Throughout our history, before granting us the privilege of freedom, Hashem subjects us to the suffering of persecution and slavery. This is not a punishment for the past, but a discipline for the future to develop our self-mastery. Subjecting us to hardship is designed to ensure that we never abuse our freedom and our dominance over others. We need to know what being the underdog feels like so that we always empathize with the persecuted and never become the persecutor even when we have the power and the dominance to do so.

Applying the last part of the verse from Mishlei, to G-d Himself, the Midrash continues:

ואוהבו שחרו מוסר זה הקדוש ברוך הוא על שאהב את ישראל… שהוא מרבה אותן ביסורין

“And one who loves him (his child) disciplines him early on,” this is G-d who, because he loves the Jewish people, subjects them to a lot of the hardship and challenge of discipline.

The harrowing story we are about to study in the Book of Shemot, is a precursor to our sovereignty later. National character development, like the development of individual character, does not flourish in comfort. Comfort is a blessing, but the pursuit of comfort can be a curse because it precludes the development of greatness. The story of Shemot is not about the attainment of prosperity, comfort and security. Rather it is the story of the Jewish journey to greatness, a journey fraught with struggle and hardship but ultimately blessed with national accomplishment of the highest spiritual order. This journey was not completed then, and it has not yet been completed today. Our nation, like all of humanity, is still traveling to a destination unknown, but one that will:

מתקן עולם במלכות שד-י

Heal the world with Divine majesty.

[1] Shemot Rabbah 1:1