Acting In Our Best Interest
Sometimes we find ourselves acting in ways that are self-destructive, even when we know better. This is what we learn from this week's Torah portion:
God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh, the wicked Egyptian king, to free the Jewish people from their slavery. Moses warns him that if he doesn't listen, God will strike him and his people with terrible plagues. But time after time, Pharaoh stubbornly refuses to listen until he gets struck with a plague. Then he promises to let the Jews go. But when the plague stops and things get better, Pharaoh forgets his promise until he gets struck again. We can learn from here the important lesson of not behaving like Pharaoh. We should learn from past mistakes instead of stubbornly repeating them.
In our story, a boy learns this very lesson.
"THE MOUSE GETS THE CHEESE"
Bryan sat on the doctor's examining table and said, "Doctor, I get these real bad stomach aches. Sometimes my stomach hurts so much I can't sleep at night."
His parents, standing behind him, tensely nodded in confirmation.
"Hmm..." said the doctor, a friendly looking middle aged man. "Let's run some tests and we'll see what we can do about it."
Three days later, Bryan saw his dad answer the phone, nod with a smile and hang up. He called his son over. "Bryan, I have good news," he said. "The doctor said your stomach-aches are nothing serious. But he said that you are allergic to milk products. So long as you don't eat any, you'll be fine."
Bryan smiled, relieved. "Oh, that means I just don't drink milk, right? No problem."
"Well, Bryan, not exactly," said his dad. "You're supposed to avoid all milk products, including cheese and ice-cream."
"What - no ice cream?! No pizza?! Dad I love those things," Bryan protested.
"Son," his father said matter-of-factly. "Unless you want more of those terrible stomach-aches you just have to stop eating them."
Bryan grumbled, but did make an effort to not eat milk products. And the truth is he did feel much better.
It had been weeks since he last had a stomach-ache. It felt almost as if he never had been sick in the first place.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Bryan, his brother Ted, and a few of their friends went out to the soccer field and kicked around a ball. After getting a pretty good workout, one of the guys called out, "Hey, I'm hungry. Let's go get something to eat."
The group found their way to the nearby "Ronny's Pizza." The boys ordered the specialty of the house, "extra-large-extra-cheese" pizza. A few minutes later the giant pie made its way to the table. The hungry boys began to dig in.
Without thinking twice, Bryan grabbed a steaming piece and brought it to his mouth. Just then he felt a tap on the shoulder. "Hey, what are you doing?!" said his brother Ted excitedly. "you know you can't eat that."
But Bryan brushed the younger boy off. "What's the big deal?" he asked. "I feel fine. What harm will one piece of pizza do anyway?" He bit in. The pizza tasted really good. He joined his friends in their lively re-hash of the day's soccer game.
Suddenly Bryan felt a familiar knot in his stomach. "Ohh!" he moaned quietly, hoping nobody would notice. The guys stayed at the pizza shop a little longer. Bryan put his hand on his stomach and counted the seconds until he could go home and lie down. All the while he told himself, "That's it. No more milk products. It's just not worth the stomach-ache!"
Again things got better as Bryan followed the doctor's advice. But one day his parents and brother had gone out on a shopping trip. Bryan stayed home to try to catch up on his term-paper that was due the next week. He felt bored and restless as he twirled his pen in front of his still blank paper.
Suddenly the doorbell rang. Bryan jumped up, grateful for the distraction. It was Jerry, one of his best friends. "Hi Jerry. What's up?" he said. "Well," smiled the tall red headed boy. "I guessed you were home working on your paper and I also guessed you were as bored as me."
"Right on both counts!" smiled Bryan. Jerry always had a knack to know what was going on even without being told.
"Well," Jerry went on, "I've come over to join you. We can work together, and I even brought us a little motivation," he winked, handing Bryan a red-and-white striped bag.
"Wow! Screamer's ice cream!" exclaimed Bryan. "My favorite."
"Let's dig in," said Jerry, starting to scoop the rich chocolaty ice-cream into the plastic bowls packed in the bag. He handed one to his friend.
Bryan dipped in his spoon, brought it to his mouth, and then stopped, as he remembered what had happened at the pizza shop. "What's the matter?" teased Jerry. "You forgot how to eat ice cream?"
Bryan flashed a nervous smile. Finally he said, "I'd love to Jerry. But I'm allergic to ice cream. It gives me stomach-aches."
His friend gave him a confused look, but realized that Bryan was being serious. "OK, so more for me!" he smiled.
Bryan pushed away the dish and poured himself a soda. Bryan felt great that day, and not only because his stomach didn't hurt. He had stopped himself from doing something self-destructive and that felt best of all.
Q. What was Bryan thinking before he tasted the pizza? How did he feel after he ate some and got a stomach-ache?
A. At first, since his stomach didn't hurt he felt like he could eat the pizza, even though he was allergic. But afterwards he realized it was a mistake and that from now on he would have to keep in mind what the doctor said, even when he felt fine.
Q. If we know that we get sick each time we do something, is it smart to keep doing it?
A. No. We should try to remember before we start, what it makes us feel like in the end. Then we will be able to stop ourselves.
Q. Even though Bryan knew that eating the pizza was harmful for him, he ate it anyway. Why do you think people sometimes act in a self-destructive manner, and do things they know are harmful?
A. There are different levels of knowing. Sometimes we may "know" something intellectually in our minds, but still not really "know" it in a deep enough way to motivate us to change our actions. Genuine knowing also includes having in mind the likely future consequences of the choices that we make. Bryan knew intellectually that he shouldn't eat the pizza, but he also really wanted it; he dismissed the potential consequences of his actions. But after he ate it and his stomach started to hurt, he realized it wasn't worth it, and his knowledge motivated him to behave differently in the future.
Q. We see from Pharaoh's stubborn behavior in the Torah portion and from Bryan's stubbornly eating the pizza he was allergic to, the negative effects of stubbornness. Can you think of any ways that a person who is naturally stubborn could put this trait to a positive use?
A. Every character trait that God gives a person has the potential for good. In the case of stubbornness, a person could use this trait to stand up for what is right, even when he's being pressured to do something wrong. He could also stubbornly refuse to give up when the going gets tough and reach goals that a less stubborn person would be unable to accomplish.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Suppose the nature of Bryan's disease was such that eating milk products hurt him in a way he didn't immediately feel. Do you think he would be as likely to avoid them? Which situation is preferable, in your opinion?
A. It might appear preferable to not feel the pain -- after all, it hurts. But, in fact, the pain he felt was a blessing in disguise. It gave him immediate feedback when he did something wrong, and it motivated him to stop. If he didn't feel the negative consequences of his actions right away, it would have been much harder for him to stop. Part of the great danger of cigarette smoking and other unhealthy habits are that we don't feel how they are harming us immediately. Often, by the time a person realizes it, it is too late. This also applies to a person's spiritual health. The choices we make concerning how we treat others and the values we choose to live by largely determine the type of person we will become, even if we don't always feel it happening.
Q. Many normal healthy people often find themselves falling into self-destructive behavior patterns. How do you think a person can best change such a pattern?
A. A big step in the right direction comes when we are able to recognize any negative patterns which might exist. Once we admit to ourselves that something might need fixing, we are well on the way toward fixing it. At times, as in the case of Bryan's stomach-aches, it's easy to figure out what to do. At other times, it's harder. But a person who is sincerely dedicated to living a healthy and meaningful life will find the search well worth the effort.
Q. Can you think of any self-destructive behavior that you are prone to doing?