I’ve got to give it to the book of Exodus — it doesn’t waste any time in getting down to brass tacks. In this second Torah portion, Va’era, Moses and his brother Aaron are already appearing before Pharaoh, zeal in their eyes, demanding freedom for the Israelites. We’re only on chapter 6 of the whole book, but the zenith is rapidly approaching. Or at least, so it would seem.
After all, our heroes have been through plenty of trials by now. Moses has already been left in the reeds by his mother, raised in the Egyptian palace by royalty, literally gotten away with murder, fled, proven his worthiness at the burning bush, and returned to become the savior of his nation. Surely now is the deus ex machina moment when everything comes together and the hero prevails against all odds. How much more can be done?
Of course, this is not the case. We still have ten plagues to get through, many of which appear in this parsha. Not to mention the whole Exodus from Egypt, complete with pillars of smoke and flames and a host of chariots crashing into the sea.
It is tempting to write about the plagues when discussing Va’era. They’re so disturbing and over the top (rivers of blood? really?), and they leave a lot of questions unanswered. Why frogs, for instance? What’s the deal with the locusts? Nevertheless, despite the allure of the creepy-crawlies, there’s something else about this section of the Torah that has always gotten to me.
The section I’m talking about is Exodus 7:2-3, the part that reads “You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.”
Until recently, this has always struck me as kind of an irritating move on God’s part. I’ve always wondered if the plagues were even necessary. After all, if we are operating on the assumption that God is omnipotent, then why does God even need an emissary. Are the signs and marvels important enough to justify the horrors of, say, a river of blood, widespread pestilence, and the death of every firstborn in the land? Perhaps not.
The past months have made me rethink my position on this passage. Not to say that I have a different conclusion, but it doesn’t seem quite as cut and dried as it did before I had a toddler running amok in my house.
What if I could close my eyes, make a wish, and my little one would understand that drawing on pillowcases can ruin them? What would it be like to impart the wisdom of taking the stairs more slowly without any skinned knees on the way? How would it look if I just built all the Lego towers for my kid, sidestepping any frustrated tears or wailing?
It would look pretty great, to be honest. My house would be cleaner, for one thing.
The thing is, though, that sometimes parents need to let kids understand the hard way, or to learn the boundaries of acceptable behavior in their home, even if those boundaries are unpleasant. Sometimes we need to show “signs and marvels” by way of repercussions and consequences, even if it means that the process is longer and more irritating.
I say this with many caveats; I believe that, as parents, our role is not to impart the paradigms of society as they were handed down to us. On the contrary, we should always be questioning why something is deemed unacceptable and make a conscious choice about which regulations we put on our little ones. I also believe that boundaries should always be enforced respectfully, with as much consideration of the emotional world our child inhabits as possible. My wife and I try to be consistent with our boundaries, and we try to explain things in a way that makes sense to someone who marvels at the magic of a purple plastic spoon.
Of course, sometimes we lose our patience and say things we don’t mean. It’s hard to be patient and respectful when you haven’t slept properly in 18 months and are being asked to listen to the same Bob Dylan song for the 80th time today. I love Bob and all, but wow.
I guess I understand God’s need to make a point and display all the available portents and signs to the Israelites. Maybe God wanted to make a point or set an expectation for the power structure in the home environment.
When do we set boundaries with a “mighty hand” and an “outstretched arm” as God is said to have done here? When do we relax our enforcement of expectations and hierarchies? Should we decide ahead of time, or just go with the flow? The truth is that I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. To me, it’s all a sort of cost-benefit analysis. If the cost of being stern with my toddler for drawing on the pillows is too much (and, in that very real instance, I deemed it too much) I don’t do it. Of course, all of these decisions are made in real-time, which can make it tricky, especially when it comes to aligning with whomever you’re co-parenting with. My wife and I try to stay communicative when it comes to these moments, but it’s an ongoing conversation that is often derailed.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to revisit this portion of the Torah, and for the indecisiveness I’ve discovered. I love that it’s not as simple as I thought it was, that there are more depths to plumb and questions to ask. Like anything else in parenthood (and life), the important thing is to always be curious. Some days will bring fresh frustrations for both us and our kids, with wailing and tears. Some days will be easy, all giggles and silly faces. As long as we greet both with a curiosity and a knowledge that we always have more to discover, I think we’re on the right path.