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Balancing Love and Limits

The Torah portion of Ki Sisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35) contains the infamous account of the Golden Calf, the most grievous national sin in the Torah. As a quick recap, the Jewish nation made the Golden Calf while Moshe (Moses) was on Har Sinai (Mt. Sinai) receiving the Torah, completely unaware of his people’s actions. While still on the mountaintop, Hashem (God) told Moshe that the nation had sinned terribly by worshiping a golden calf. Hashem was prepared to destroy them and rebuild a new nation from Moshe alone. Moshe responded by praying for the survival of the Jewish people before descending the mountain with the Luchos HaBris (Tablets of the Covenant). As he reached the bottom of the mountain, Yehoshua (Joshua), who had been waiting alone and unaware of the people’s activities, heard loud noises coming from the nation’s campsite and told Moshe “There is a noise of war in the camp.” Moshe responded, "It is not the voice of those who shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of those who cry for being overcome: but the noise of distress do I hear.”


Moshe didn’t state the nature of the sound objectively, he described the noise he heard. Ramban (Nachmonides - 13th century Spanish Torah leader) explains that Moshe, as the leader of the Jewish people, was extremely sensitive to the nuances of the sounds of his people and interpreted them using his wisdom and perception. In amazement, Moshe turned to his student and eventual successor Yehoshua and asked, “Is it possible that one who is destined to be the leader of Israel cannot distinguish between different kinds of sounds?”


What does differentiating sounds have to do with leadership? The answer, which sheds light on both leadership and parenting, was explained to me by Rabbi Myer Shwab, the founder and principal of Beth Jacob High School of Denver. Of course Yehoshua was carefully attuned to sounds and he surely knew there wasn’t a physical war waging. The noise of war he described was that of a spiritual battle. He was hearing sounds of people who had lost mastery over themselves.  But Moshe wasn’t satisfied with the basic description that Yehoshua heard sounds of war. Moshe’s message was that a leader can’t just understand the facts, he also needs to think beyond to understand the reasons behind a situation.  Yes, there was a spiritual battle being waged. The question a leader must ask is why did the people lose self-control? What motivations were driving the sounds?  Were the people worshiping an idol as a rebellious act of Godly rejection or were they feeling scared and driven to acts of desperation?  Moshe taught Yehoshua that a leader must look to understand why people err in order to help them recover. To help a struggling person regain his footing from a spiritual fall, one must understand what motivated the slip and which factors contributed to the situation. The why is just as important as the what.


Parents also have the responsibility to not only respond to misbehavior but to question why.  When our children misbehave we need to search for the roots. Are they overtired? Are they scared? Are they overstimulated? Are they frustrated? Understanding the underlying stressors and challenges that led to misbehavior is not condoning it.  We don’t accept misbehavior once we understand its source. Uncovering the why lets us help our children get back on track. If we realize that they are tired, we’ll move supper early and work on helping them get a good night’s sleep. While parents must still express disapproval of bad behavior and firmly stop it, this approach allows them to simultaneously understand and help their child recover from a tough situation.


Moshe’s understanding of the factors that led to the Golden Calf didn’t lead him to absolve the nation of responsibility or to shirk imposing the necessary punishments. The exquisite balance he modeled was that a leader must at one and the same time, look to understand the whys of misbehavior while also condemning it. Wise parents follow Moshe’s model. Even as they rebuke their children’s misbehavior, they simultaneously seek to understand the contributing factors so they can work long-term to help their children through future challenges. Punishing a child and understanding a child are not mutually exclusive. Parents need both a loving heart and a strong backbone to seek understanding while also enforcing limits.


This article is dedicated to the memory of a heroic mother, Sgt. Maj. Yulia Vakser, 37, a police officer guarding the Supernova music festival on October 7, who was killed fighting Hamas terrorists. Yulia is survived by her parents, sister, husband and two children, ages 12 and 8. Her husband Samuel wrote, “She was the light of the house, our pillar of strength. A very dominant mother at home, at a level that’s hard to describe. The kids were everything to her. She was also a very happy woman. I don’t know what we’ll do without her now.” May Hashem avenge her blood and bring comfort to her family and nation.

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