Growing Pains

hero image

A MOTHER ONCE turned to her teenage son and asked, “How much does a child cost?”

“Cost!” the boy relied. “Just what do you mean – his shoes, hat, bicycle, wrist watch, his…?”

“No,” replied the pensive mother. “You have it all wrong. The items you mention are really the least expensive. I was thinking of other costs, much greater costs. I was thinking of what agonizing pain, suffering and fatigue a child costs, how much of a mother’s torturing anxiety, of a father’s toil, how many prayers, fears and yearnings, how much patience, instruction, love, sorrows, and how many sleepless nights. These are the costs I was thinking about, the costs that simply cannot be measured in dollars or counted in materials benefits.”

Whatever the costs, there is no greater joy than bringing home a newborn infant. The hopes, aspirations and promise are coupled with celebration and simcha. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize that the abundant joy is intertwined with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. The baby is helpless, totally dependent upon others, primarily a mother and father. The baby can’t talk, walk, feed or clothe himself. The baby can simply not function without the ever watchful and caring eye of an adult. The baby spends the first few years of life in its own little galut. Someone once suggested, either cynically or in jest, that perhaps it would been more sensible for a human to be born self-sufficient and self-reliant instead of being so powerless and reliant. Is it really necessary for the baby to spend years in galut? Couldn’t he or she be born redeemed and independent?

It seems that HaShem intended for the baby to first crawl and then walk. The stages of infancy, childhood, and adulthood are natural and logical progressions necessary in order to arrive at full maturity. Ultimately the mature, responsible, appreciative adult, once helpless and simple, can educate others with values and ideals that were previously transmitted to him during periods of growing pains, frustration and fears. Geula is a result of galut, just as maturity is a result of demanding and painful learning experiences.

The newborn nation of Israel, striving desperately to reach adulthood and maturity, also spent its infancy and childhood years in Galut, in anticipation of its ultimate maturity at Har Sinai. A nation is molded in the very same fashion as children, preparing and gearing up for a life directed by positive and moral lessons, derived during childhood. Abraham is told precisely this when he is promised that “your children shall be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they shall serve them, and they shall afflict them for four hundred years.” Towards what goal and purpose? “And afterwards shall they come out with great substance,” birechush gadol. The rechush gadol explains the Ktav V’Hakabalah is the promise of the great spiritual inheritance they will attain. HaShem promises rechush gadol not rechush rav. The word rav indicates quantity, gadol refers to quality. A galut experience is meant to ultimately produce qualitative results.

A woman was once overheard asking Dr. Freud, “How early can I begin the education of my child?” “When will your child be born?” Freud asked. “Born?” she exclaimed. “Why, he is already five years old!” “My goodness, woman,” the famous psychoanalyst cried, “don’t stand there talking to me – hurry home! You have already wasted the best years!”

In the midst of years of pains and frustrations, critically important lessons and values are imparted to a child, and yes, to a nation as well.

We understand, that values of empathy, sympathy, sharing and honesty are imparted to a young toddler, but what lifelong lessons result from a demoralizing and degrading galut, endured by Klal Yisrael in Egypt? True, the Egyptian experience welded twelve tribal families into one nation, and the Exodus dramatically manifested HaShem’s personal involvement and concern in the birth and destiny of the Jewish people. These divine goals could have been attained however, with simpler, less painful methods than galut mitzrayim.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik views the Egyptian exile and suffering as the “experience which molded the moral quality of the Jewish people for all time.” The galut experience “taught the Jew ethical sensitivity, what it truly means to be a Jew. It sought to transform the Jew into a rahaman, one possessing a heightened form of ethical sensitivity and responsiveness.” The most practical method of teaching compassion, sensitivity and concern for others; the most direct way of imparting a sense of mitgefiel, an imo anochi betzara approach, is by recalling one’s own experience of tzara, pain and oppression. Is it any wonder that one who has suffered sickness best understands the agony of the ill; one who sustained the loss of a loved one can best comfort the bereaved, and the wealthy businessman who suffered major reversals can best identify with the plight of an associate in similar straits? Do you think that perhaps the AA group’s philosophy is so successful because yesterday’s addicts communicate with today’s addicts?

Torah’s most powerful lessons regarding sympathy and compassion are always coupled with reminders of our once state of helplessness and lowly status during our Egyptian bondage. The galut experience was meant to sharpen and refine the Jew’s ethical sensitivity and moral awareness. “You shall not pervert the justice due a stranger or to the fatherless; nor take a widow’s garment in pawn.” Why not? “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore, I command you to observe this commandment. The Torah admonishes us thirty six times to treat the stranger [ger] kindly. Why? “For, “you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and therefore? Veatem yedatem et nefesh ha’ger. Having experienced estrangement, oppression and discrimination, you are expected, more so than one who hasn’t, to empathize and sympathize with the ger – the weakest members of society. Rav Soloveitchik often reiterated that the Mitzrayim experience sought to evoke not merely a capacity to love, a characteristic with which we are all born, but rather the necessity of loving, sharing and sympathizing, with no other choices or alternatives possible.

Once parents and teachers sense growth and maturity of the part of children, once they feel that their baby had developed into a mentsch, they are ready to grant children independence and responsibility. Once God senses growth, maturity and responsibility on the part of His children, He is eager to take them out of Mitzrayim and gift them with Torah and Eretz Yisrael. Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman points out that the brit bayin ha’betarim is the second covenant established by HaShem with mankind. The first covenant after the Flood vows that mankind will never again be destroyed. The ultimate Divine purpose however, is not simply not to destroy the human race. It is rather to allow the fulfillment of the second covenant: to establish a unique human type, a nation with a sacred mission – zera Avraham. It is true that the fulfillment of the second covenant entails a grueling galut experience, but remember that galut is a necessary means to graduate birechush gadol, with “great substance.”

Whatever style of chinuch our children are receiving and whether they are taught in Hebrew, Yiddish or English, ultimately every student must graduate with the rechush gadol of being a mentsch, a rahaman, given tools of compassion, sensitivity, concern and mitgefiel for every Jew. Talmidim should certainly be trained how to learn, but how to daven too; how to think, but how to feel, as well. Our students should graduate with much knowledge, but with even more passion.

How much does this cost?

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s Vice President, Communications & Marketing. These ideas were originally developed in Rabbi Safran’s Passion and Peace: Traditional Torah Thoughts & Contemporary Reflections, KTAV 1988.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.