Beliefs and attitudes that are implanted in people through their life experiences exert a powerful influence over their future behavior. Children form a view of their own self-worth that carries into adulthood. That view comes from the impressions they have based on adult and peer comments, reactions and emotional feedback received when they are very young. Just how impactful those experiences and impressions can be, is illustrated in this week’s Parsha.
Children form views of their own self-worth, … based on adult and peer comments, reactions and emotional feedback …The Torah tells us that on day six of Yetzias Mitzrayim, as the Bnei Yisrael were camped by the Yam Suf, Pharoah and his army of 600 men and chariots approached, poised to attack. The Pasuk records the reaction of the Jewish People – “…and they were exceedingly fearful…” (Shemos 14:10) They cried out to Hashem, to save them. The Ibn Ezra (Pasuk 13) questions, “How was it possible that this great encampment of 600,000 men were scared of a small band trying to pursue them? Why did they not go to battle, to save themselves and their children?” The Ibn Ezra answers it was because the generation that left Mitzrayim were slaves their entire lives to these Egyptians, and being subservient was ingrained within them. They developed a lowly, weak spirit. They were simply incapable of fighting against their (former) masters.
When we give this some thought, we realize it is a truly sobering concept. The Jews outnumbered the Egyptians 1,000 to 1! They had witnessed over the course of many months how Hashem had delivered crushing punishments and brought their former masters to their knees. Their country, their livelihood and their families had been decimated. Everything is now very different than it was – why are they still stuck in their out-of-date outlook? Why, in such advantageous circumstances, did the former slaves not even think about fighting back?
Such is the power of an ingrained attitude. After long-lasting experiences of debilitating and demoralizing slavery seared such an indelible impression in their hearts and minds, the Bnei Yisrael were unable to break out of their slave mentality. Despite the new reality, they were still traumatized by the previous experiences playing out in their conscious and subconscious mind. Rational thought gave way to the emotional scars and wounds of their previous life.
The internal messages they give themselves during childhood will be emblazoned on their heart in adulthood. The Chumash provides further proof of this dynamic on a personal level. The Ibn Ezra comments on the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu grew up in Pharoah’s palace. (Shemos 2:3) “Perhaps Hashem had it come about that Moshe Rabbeinu grew up in royal surroundings so that his spirit would be on a high level, rather than being lowly like a slave. It helped make him more assertive with the Egyptian who was abusing the Jewish slave and with the shepherds in Midyan who were harassing Yisro’s daughters at the well.”
If we stop to think about who Moshe Rabbeinu was, this idea is bewildering. Moshe was an incredible Talmid Chochom, he had superior leadership qualities and he would loyally follow whatever Hashem told him without hesitation. Additionally, as a member of Shevet Levi he would not have actually been subject to slavery, and yet, had he not spent his childhood years in privileged surroundings, he would have been lacking somewhat in his abilities and drive to lead the Jewish people, vanquish their enemies, receive the Torah and help them thrive in a barren desert. All his greatness and brilliance might not have sufficiently overcome childhood-based shortcomings and his leadership abilities would have fallen short of the lofty requirements.
This idea is very relevant to how we parent, and it is especially important in light of recent events, to help nurture and develop, strong, self-confident and self-assured children. The internal messages they give themselves during childhood will be emblazoned on their heart in adulthood. Every person has greatness within them, and the tragedy is that relatively few bring that greatness to reality. Unrealized potential is in many cases due to child self-directed negative messages that result from adult negativity and belittling of children.
Coping with adversity, learning to bounce back from setbacks with resiliency, …, are the foundations of a person bound for greatness. A child growing up in a home where he is enveloped with love and limits, assured of his parents’ esteem and absolute commitment to do what is best for the child, is thereby provided with precisely the elevated atmosphere that he needs to become a person “of lofty spirit.“ We need to find our child’s areas of strength, help our children excel in them, and celebrate their accomplishments, big or small. Coping with adversity, learning to bounce back from setbacks with resiliency, the ability to accept a parental “no” with equanimity, are the foundations of a person bound for greatness.
By recognizing the power of surrounding circumstances and life experiences, especially in childhood, we can reframe our reactions and expectations and enable our children to soar on the wings of self-confidence to a safe, productive and happy childhood and adulthood.
Best wishes for an ennobling Shabbos,
Rabbi Kalman Baumann