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Parshas Chukas (5777)

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child?

In the old days they used to say, "Spare the rod, spoil the child". Rods were in. Discipline of that sort was very common, and probably quite effective. But for some odd reason, for the last 60 years or so, hitting, “potching” and other types of "contact discipline" have fallen out of grace, and are even discouraged by many prominent child psychiatrists. Why the sudden change?

[Please note that I am not referring to abusive and extreme, unwarranted hitting the likes of which is unfortunately quite common today, but rather to the type of discipline that many of your parents – or at least your grandparents - likely remember receiving when they were growing up, and which no doubt contributed to that generation’s being far better behaved than the average kid of today.] I believe that a careful analysis of the nature of Moses' sin in the desert, as recorded in this week's Torah portion, Parshas Chukas, will yield some insights into why the nature of parental discipline has evolved as it has.

Rashi, in his commentary to Numbers 20:12, gives one explanation of Moses's sin. The people thirsted for water, so G-d instructed Moses and Aaron to speak to a certain rock, and water would then miraculously flow from it. But instead of speaking to it, as G-d had commanded them, they hit the rock and the water came pouring out.

Elsewhere, Rashi seems to indicate that the reason why Moses was punished was because he got angry with the Jewish people and called them morim, or “rebels” (see his commentary to Numbers 11:22).

On top of all this, we find the Torah itself stating that the cause for Moses' not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel was because he didn't have the emunah, or faith, (commensurate with his own very high level of spirituality and closeness to G-d) to sanctify G-d's name when he hit the rock (see Numbers 20:12).

Based on the above, there would seem to be three different aspects to Moses' sin - (a) a certain lack of faith, (b) unjustified anger at the people, and, (c) that he hit the rock instead of talking to it.

I believe that these three aspects are interrelated, and actually represent a progression. When we are faced with all types of tests and difficulties in our lives - be they an illness, or the loss of a job, or a difficult child etc. - we are asked by G-d to have faith and trust in Him that He has only our best interests in mind when He gives us such challenges. With this faith, we can remain calm and in control, come what may. [This is easier said than done - it takes a lifetime of Torah study and training to build that implicit trust in G-d and in His overwhelming love for us!].

Sometimes, however, we fail those tests of faith and we lose control. Moses was having difficulty handling the stiff-necked people, and his faith in G-d – Who had asked him to lead the nation - was weakened on some level.

Then comes the second step, when we get angry at ourselves and at others because of our lack of faith. We call people names and we yell at them. Moses called our ancestors rebels when he got upset at them.

The final step is that in our anger, we make mistakes, like hitting the rock instead of talking to it. Sometimes – as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes in his commentary to the Torah - our kids are just not getting the message we are trying to convey to them. Their head is like a rock, not willing to listen to us. So, in our frustration, we lash out indiscriminately and we "hit the rock" – just as Moses did - instead of patiently talking to it. And hitting out of anger and frustration like that never works. It always causes the one who got hit to rebel or to close up even more.

This could be why discipline (at least of the hitting kind) doesn't work too well nowadays. It's not our kids that are the problem. Kids haven't changed all that much throughout the centuries. It's the parents that have changed. In the old days, parents had greater emunah and were more firmly anchored in their faith and more aware of the constant Divine Providence in their lives. So that when difficult challenges inevitably arose - such as a difficult child etc. - they handled the situation much better. Even when they needed to discipline their child, it was done in a more cool and focused and purposeful manner, where only the best interests of the child were in their minds – and the child could sense that from the parents. So the discipline (generally) worked.

Today, though, it's a whole different ball game. When we’re faced with a difficult kid, we lose our faith and with it our self-control, and we hit with reckless abandon. The kid gets smacked out of anger or frustration, but hardly ever in a calm and calculated (and loving) manner. So how do we expect it to work?

There was a great Rabbi in Poland who was known to wait patiently for a few minutes before hitting his children, just to make sure that he knew and they knew that he wasn't doing it out of anger, but because he loved them and needed to discipline them for their own good. Then, soon after he hit them, he would embrace them to again make sure they knew how much he really cared for them, and that he wasn't hitting them merely to release his pent-up anger and frustration.

It is told that, in the nineteenth century, Russian Minister of Education Uvarov once came to the great Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin and asked him when, according to the Jewish belief system, is the appropriate time to start educating our children. The Rabbi replied, "Twenty years before they are born".

The message of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin – as well as the message of Moses’ sin in this week’s Torah portion – is that we first have to work on ourselves – strengthening our faith in G-d and our ability to control ourselves and our anger in difficult situations – and only then can we hope to effectively discipline our children and influence them in a positive manner.

[Ed. Note: This Z-mail is based partially on the ideas of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ZT”L in his classic work Darash Moshe.]

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