We all know the story; Pharaoh did not listen, plagues came to Egypt. Hail, the last plague mentioned in this week’s Parsha, was going to be a hailstorm of unprecedented magnitude. Although the hail was extremely destructive, some of the animals survived. Which ones? The animals whose owners had followed Moses’ instructions to bring them indoors.
Whoever among the servants of Pharaoh FEARED the word of G-d chased his servants and livestock in the houses. And whoever DID NOT PAY ATTENTION to the word of G-d, left his servants and livestock in the field. And those who DID NOT PAY ATTENTION to the word of G-d left their servants and cattle in the field. (9:20-21)
There is a textual inconsistency in these two verses. The opposite of fear is not having fear. The verse should have said that those who feared G-d were successful (in saving their livestock) whereas those who did not fear G-d were not. Why, then, does the Torah refer to the ones who did not fear G-d as those who did not pay attention?
In addition, why did the servants need to be chased in the house? Didn’t they know they, who were left in the field, should flee to safety? Why were they not afraid for their lives and run to find safe places?
The answer is that they did not pay attention to the danger. No amount of knowledge can prevent a person from putting himself or herself in a dangerous situation unless he or she takes the knowledge to heart. Although this point sounds overly simplistic, we see many people failing to heed the lesson. For example, there are people who use hand sanitizer a few times a day, yet lead a night life doing intimate activities that put them at a far greater risk of having a virus or even disease transmitted to them. They are clearly aware of the danger but do not pay attention to it.
Another area of immense danger, albeit emotional danger, is relationships. I.e., a young woman has been living with a man for ten years and anxiously wants to get married, yet he keeps saying he needs more time. He is in his mid-forties and they know everything about each other; is there any doubt that she is headed for disappointment? She is aware of the danger but she does not pay attention to it. Overeating, texting while driving, smoking, and so many other behaviors for which there is a mound of evidence of its danger but that does not prevent their practitioners from doing them.
The Talmud says that the wise person is one who SEES the future (consequences of his or her behavior). This person is called “wise” because he or she is willing to make the effort to look into how this particular action will affect his or her future.
Books and movies about going back in time to rectify a situation are always popular. Which of us would not like to have this opportunity to take the knowledge we have about ourselves and others and change a bad decision we made in the past? For some, it would mean having sought recovery for an addiction before it ruined their life and distanced themselves from those who love them. For others, it would have been to have had the courage to audition for a play or apply for a job that they knew they had a shot at. Some people mourn lost relationships that could have been successful “if only I would have listened to what my therapist and friends were telling me.” No price would be considered unreasonable for the opportunity to go back in time.
The good news is that we do have a similar opportunity every day. A person might do something that he or she SEES today-in the present-that will definitely create challenges for him and his family in the future. Is one night of pleasure worth ruining your life as well your family’s? Is it worth stealing a few bottles of soda when you know about the company’s no tolerance policy concerning taking home drinks, which are free but only at the office? How many times have you made critical remarks to your child? In addition to not working, it increases the already wide chasm you have with that child. If you say what is on your mind, there will be yelling and door slamming.
We do not need a time machine for many of the mistakes we make in life because we really do know what will happen in the future. The challenge is that we do not pay attention to those rational thoughts. The people in Egypt had witnessed six plagues; was there any doubt that harmful hail would fall and leave a path of destruction? We too fall into the same trap when we are not willing to confront an unpleasant reality before us.
One of the most important lessons parents impart to their children is the ability to put aside the smaller pleasure for the larger pleasure. Kids will always choose to spoil their appetite with sweets and avoid healthy food, stay up late and be groggy the next day in school, play video games instead of doing homework, and the litany of other bad choices they would make without responsible parents. They don’t see how crucial education is in their future nor do they understand that they will get a stomach ache form eating too much of the wrong food at the wrong time. If we do not look into the future before making a decision it is not because we don’t have the knowledge of the consequence of our acts, it is because we don’t want to confront the unpleasant reality that the present pleasure will lead to trouble for us and the people in our lives. If we are willing to have these crucial confrontations (with ourselves), we are achieving the purpose for which we were created. If not, we never really grew up. So what will it be; will your life be serene or wild? That depends on whether you are willing to be an adult or child.
(Sources: Sichos Mussar 5721:27; Growth Through Torah, pp 154-155.; Pirkei Avos 2:9; Priceless Sichot 5777