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The Bare Minimum

Friday, 16 January, 2015 - 1:00 pm

As parents, teachers, employers or simply human beings we often struggle with finding the right balance. Balance between reward and punishment. Balance between enjoyment and discipline. Balance between diet and obsession.

How do we ensure that we are not going overboard when punishing our child? When demanding of our employees? What we expect from others?

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In the parsha Va’eirah, which we study this week, G-d begins letting Egypt know who’s in charge. First comes the plague of blood, then frogs and lice.  Seven more will follow.

The Torah describes the onset of the second plague as follows: “And Ahron stretched forth his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frog came up and covered the land of Egypt.”

Strangely, in this verse the Torah employs the singular form frog (הצפרדע), as opposed to frogs, which is used in all other references to this plague. In other words, the Torah implies that initially only one frog emerged when Ahron stretched his hand over the river.  The Midrash contends that initially one frog surfaced and then it multiplied into many, many more.

But why did only one frog appear originally?

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When confronted with the opportunity or obligation to perform a mitzvah that has no set quantity, we are left to decide for ourselves. For example, when giving charity, the minimum is 10% of our income.  But the Torah encourages us to give even more than that. How much more should we give? In such a situation, avoiding the possibility of leaving the mitzvah incomplete is ideal. Giving as much as one can honestly afford is the model that Judaism embraces. Always better to err on the side of caution by giving more.

But what about punishing my child? Or reprimanding my employee?

Assuming that I am unaware of the exact measure of discipline required, I may end up with too weak a penalty, or excessive punishment. Which route should I take?

Sometimes less is more.  When it comes to inflicting pain or suffering upon another human being – the bare minimum is better. Rather err on the side of caution. We can never be certain that excessive punishment is warranted – and if it is, G-d will find a way to implement it.

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This was Ahron’s intention. When G-d called upon him to bring suffering to the Egyptian people – who clearly deserved punishment – Ahron, the epitome of loving-kindness, brought forth one frog. Without explicit direction for the amount of frogs, Ahron resorted to the bare minimum – one frog. Sure enough, G-d found a way to mete out the necessary punishment, with a multitude of frogs.

When our duly warranted actions involve pain to others, the bare minimum may be the maximum.

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