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A Sticky Situation

A century ago, to teach a student a lesson, the teacher would call him over and rap his knuckles with a ruler. Today such barbaric teaching methods have long since been banned. To keep unruly students in line, we now use redirection, time-outs, suspension of privileges, extra assignments – but the purpose of these interventions remains the same. Sometimes students need a quick reminder of who is in charge.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, we read of the plagues that G-d brought upon the Egyptians. Each of the plagues – blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, etc. – was intended to inflict suffering upon the Egyptians and cause them to rethink their treatment of the Jews.

However, before bringing the plagues, G-d first sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh to warn him of the impending disaster. To demonstrate that he was indeed a messenger of G-d, Aaron performed a sign: he threw down his stick and it became a snake. Pharaoh scoffed, and called his sorcerers to replicate the feat with their own sticks. All of them were able to do so. But then Aaron’s snake reverted back to a stick, and it swallowed up all of their sticks. This feat they could not replicate.

What was the purpose of Aaron’s stick swallowing up all the other sticks? What was it meant to show? The act of turning a stick into a snake did not send a particular message to the Egyptians – after all, they were able to do the same trick. But the stick had another meaning. Before bringing the plagues upon the Egyptians, G-d first wanted to demonstrate His absolute mastery over them, His ability to unleash destruction upon them. Aaron’s stick swallowed up all of their sticks – to symbolize that Egypt would very quickly become overwhelmed by the power of the L-rd.

Chassidic teachings explain that each of the ten plagues brought upon the Egyptians was meant to subdue a different type of impurity. Before sending the plagues, though, G-d first performed a general submission of all the Egyptian impurity, as demonstrated by Aaron’s stick swallowing their sticks.

However, there is a lesson that we learn from the fact that it was Aaron’s stick. The main quality for which Aaron is known is his kindness, his pursuit of peace, as our sages teach: “Be one of the disciples of Aaron: love peace, pursue peace, love all creatures and bring them close to Torah.” Even when it is necessary to subdue someone, to utterly diminish them for an educational purpose – the stick of Aaron must be used. Our method of discipline must be tempered with gentleness, with warmth and kindness.

And there is also significance to the fact that Aaron’s stick turned into a snake, but reverted to a stick before swallowing up other sticks. Even when it is necessary to discipline, to use the “stick,” our personal feelings must never get in the way. It must never be out of anger or other “snake-like” emotion, hissing and lashing out in frustration. Rather, we must act with calm composure, with all the objectivity of a stick. Then the student will know that you are acting in his best interest, not to assert your own ego, and he will let go of his own ego in the process.

Taking care to use the “stick of Aaron,” with kindness and compassion, will reverse the senseless hatred that caused the exile, and bring about the final Redemption.

(Likutei Sichot vol. 26, pp. 49-58)
 

 


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