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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayikra: Mirror neurons and Moses
When a baby observes various emotions and actions of its caregivers, the baby's neurons mirrors these emotions and behaviours, as if the baby was performing the particular action. The efforts of the righteous person in developing good character traits assists his offspring for generations, enabling them to follow in his footsteps. G'd called Moses the name that Bathia, the daughter of Pharaoh called him. When Bathia defied the decree of her father, Pharaoh, and saved Moses from the Nile, she exhibited a high level of self-sacrifice for the benefit of an unknown child. Whenever Moses saw a Jewish person suffering, he would start to cry. The character trait of being ready to sacrifice oneself for the sake of even one individual, is the most important condition to be a true leader. It was the act of Bathia that fired his neurons when Moses was the beneficiary of her self-sacrifice and lovingkindness. A person's own conduct is the number in front that makes the zeros of his lineage become most valuable. If one smiles to a baby, the baby will smile back. It is up to the parents to show their children the right examples and behaviour to help them reach their potential.
Scientists are constantly trying to understand and reveal the secrets of the universe in general, and of the human being, in particular. In the relatively new field of mirror neurons, scientists are exploring how the character traits of infants are formed and developed. They wonder whether a person's character is genetically determined, or whether it depends on environmental effects? For a change, the scientists' findings are very much in tune with the teachings of the Torah. On one hand, there are certain character traits that may run in families, from one generation to the next. But at the same time, it appears that infants pick up different character traits from the ones who actually take care of them, irrelevant whether it is their biological parents or not. When a baby observes various emotions and actions of its caregivers, the baby's neurons mirrors these emotions and behaviours, as if the baby was performing the particular action.
Noble character traits
In Mishlei (20:7) King Solomon says: "The righteous person walks in his completeness, fortunate are his children after him." Rav Chaim of Valozhin, in his commentary on Pirkei Avos (5:3), explains that this verse refers to how the efforts of the righteous person in developing good character traits assists his offspring for generations, enabling them to follow in his footsteps. These noble character traits become second nature and through the efforts of the ancestor can easily be picked up by the descendants (see Torah Attitude: Yom Kippur: Judgment in mercy and mercy in judgment, September 19, 2007). This is why many people are very particular when they look for a suitable match for themselves or their children. They take great pains to ensure that the potential partner comes from a lineage of righteous people with good character traits.
In the beginning of this week's Parasha, the Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 1:3) mentions that Moses actually had ten names. The Midrash relates that G'd said to Moses: "Of all the names that you have, I am going to call you by the name that Bathia, the daughter of Pharaoh called you." As it says (Shemos 2:10) "… and she called him, "Moshe" [Moses]." This is what it says in the first verse of this week's Parasha: "and He called upon Moshe".
The famous Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivas Mir, Rabbi Chaim Shmulevits, asks "Why did G'd choose this name of Moshe above all the other names?" Every name has a deeper significance and is Divinely orchestrated to describe the personality of the person. It therefore needs clarification why "Moshe" is the most appropriate name to describe this great leader? Even stranger, the reason why Bathia called him "Moshe" was because it corresponds to her act of pulling him out of the water (see Shemos 2:10). If so, it does not describe Moses at all; rather it describes the conduct of Bathia. Says Rabbi Shmulevits, when Bathia defied the decree of her father, Pharaoh, and saved Moses from the Nile, she exhibited a high level of self-sacrifice for the benefit of an unknown child. This altruistic act penetrated into the very being of the infant Moses. It became his raison d'?tre throughout his life.
The Torah (Shemos 2:11) tells how Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their hard labour. The Midrash Rabbah (Shemos 1:27) elaborates that whenever Moses saw a Jewish person suffering, he would start to cry and said "I feel so bad for you." He would physically assist them to carry their heavy loads whenever he could. Later, when he tended the flocks of his father-in-law, the Midrash Rabbah (Shemos 2:2) relates that he once saw a little goat run away. He pursued it and caught up with it at a well, where it was busy drinking. "Oh", said Moses, "I did not realize that you were so thirsty. You must be tired now after this long run." He took the little kid and carried it on his shoulders to return it to the flock. The Midrash continues that when G'd saw how Moses conducted himself, G'd said, "You have such compassion tending to the flock belonging to a human being. I promise that you will tend to My flock, the Jewish people."
Says Rabbi Shmulevits, this character trait of being ready to sacrifice oneself for the sake of even one individual, is the most important condition to be a true leader. This was exhibited by Bathia when she extended herself, without any concern of the consequences, to save an unknown Jewish baby. And this was mirrored by Moses throughout his life. Although the name "Moshe" reflects Bathia's heroic act, nevertheless it is most adequate to describe this character trait that influenced Moses and guided him how to be a true leader.
Moses had a very noble lineage. He was the son of Amram, the leader of the Jewish people in Egypt. His mother Yocheved, was one of the midwives who also exhibited great self-sacrifice to save the Jewish babies (see Shemos 1:15-21). He was born into the prestigious Tribe of Levy and he was a direct, close descendant of our great Patriarchs. But it was the act of Bathia that fired his neurons when he was the beneficiary of her self-sacrifice and lovingkindness.
The famous Rosh HaYeshiva of Ponievitch, Rav Eliozer Schach, once said that the great lineage of a person is like zeros. The greater the lineage, the more zeros. However, zeros on their own are worthless; it all depends on what number is put in front of the zeros. A person's own conduct is the number in front that makes the zeros become valuable.
The story is told of a young couple that came to their rabbi to ask for his advice how to educate their child. One of the questions they wanted to know was, at what age the education of the child should begin. The rabbi asked the young couple: "How old is your child?" They answered that the child was born a week earlier. To this the rabbi said, "You came a week too late." Even the smallest infant picks up the atmosphere in which it grows up. Every detail of how the parents and other members of the household talk to and deal with each other makes a difference. The child absorbs and is influenced by how it is being looked after. It is well known that if one smiles to a baby, the baby will smile back. This is what King Solomon writes in Mishlei (27:19): "As water reflects the same face back as shown, so does the heart of one person respond to the other." Even the kind of music that is being played in the house makes a difference for the development of the child.
Reach their potential
Every set of parents wants the best for their children. The Torah has been teaching us for thousands of years what scientists are just beginning to discover, that the positive development of a child is a combination of the family genes and family behaviour. The foundation is laid by previous generations but it is amplified manifold by the environment of the house in which the infant grows up. The Rambam writes (Laws of Teshuvah 5:2): "every person has the potential to be as righteous as Moses." However, it is up to the parents to show their children the right examples and behaviour to help them reach their potential.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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