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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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Parshas Chukas

The Importance of Discipline

And there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves against Moshe and against Aharon.

Reb Yechiel Varker z"l, the proprietor of the well-known "Varker's Printing Company," was both kind and clever. His success in business did not exceed his devotion to Torah. After being in business for twenty-five years, he decided to dedicate an entire year to Torah learning. Thus he did not enter his printing business even once during the course of that year. He had decided that it was time to devote a year to Hashem.

When Reb Yechiel was an old man, Rabbi Shalom Shwadron told the following story about him.

During the bitter days of the First World War, the Turks ruled Yerushalayim, and signs of war such as hunger and epidemics could be seen everywhere. Worst of all was the forced recruitment of Jewish men into the Turkish army. This meant almost certain death. The conscripted men were sent by ship to Istanbul, where the English would regularly bomb the ships, and the soldiers inside would drown. Countless young boys were killed, and those already married left their wives agunos who could never remarry, since their husbands' bodies were never found. The situation was very grave.

Under these circumstances, no one wanted to be enlisted into the Turkish army, and Jews and gentiles alike would go into hiding to avoid being conscripted. The Turks saw that they were losing the war, young people were not being drafted, and their numbers were dwindling from day to day. Therefore they issued a decree stating that any young man found hiding would be sent immediately to the battlefront, and the person who hid him would be hanged in the square near the Jaffa Gate, so that his execution would be an example to others. After the Turks actually hanged two Jews, a great fear fell upon all those in hiding.

At that time there was a young man who lived in Yerushalayim named Berniker. He was one of those in hiding, and he was caught and put in the jail called the "Kishele" in the Old City. It was a well-known fact that the Turks accepted bribery, and it was possible to bribe a Turkish clerk in those days with even a small coin.

Therefore, on Friday afternoon, members of Berniker's family approached the soldier guarding the jail. Someone gave the guard half a dinar, and promised him that if he would free Berniker for Shabbos, he would bring him back right after Shabbos. The guard agreed and freed Berniker, warning him that he must return after Shabbos.

The family decided that something had to be done to save Berniker from the army, but they didn't know what to do. Meanwhile, they heard that many had succeeded in hiding in the orchards of Petach Tikveh, where the supervision of the Turks was less stringent than it was in Yerushalayim. The problem was how to get to Petach Tikvah, since the way to Motza, a few kilometers from Yerushalayim, was filled with Turkish soldiers and it was almost impossible to pass them without being seen.

The young Berniker was afraid to go by himself. Moreover he was weak from hiding, and he was in despair. He said to his family, "What is there to lose? Is this called life, hiding all the time? I will go and enlist, and that will be the end of it." But the family would not hear of such a thing.

Berniker's sister went to Reb Yechiel Varker, who was exempt from army duty, and asked him to do a favor for her brother, and to escort him to Motza, from where he would somehow find a way to get to Petach Tikvah. When Reb Yechiel heard her request, he said, "I agree. At three a.m. knock on my door and I will go with him. G-d will help us."

At the appointed hour, the sister knocked on the door. Reb Yechiel dressed immediately. When his wife asked where he was going, he replied that since he could not sleep anyway, he preferred to get up. He left the house, taking Berniker with him.

Since it was impossible to travel on the main road without being spotted, Reb Yechiel chose a road that went through the Givat Shaul neighborhood. This road wound up and down through three mountains on the way to Motza. They successfully passed the first two mountains, but when they reached the third, it was already morning, and they saw at the foot of the mountain a Turkish officer riding a horse and leading a whole line of chained prisoners who had attempted to escape enlistment.

It was obvious that the officer had already seen them. Therefore it seemed certain that they would be caught. Berniker wanted to run, but Reb Yechiel tried his best to talk him out of it. "What do you think you can gain by running? He has a horse and can easily overtake you. He won't even be afraid to leave the prisoners alone, since they are all chained together. There is no point in trying to run."

Berniker said despairingly, "So what should I do?"

Reb Yechiel answered him, "Let us say viduy, since we are both in danger. And when we say viduy, we will simply ignore them and pray to G-d. Perhaps He will help us."

And so they continued walking down the hill. The officer of course saw them, and got off his horse, awaiting their arrival. He even made space for them to pass in case he would find out that they were exempt from military service. There were many people who were exempt, especially foreign residents, and Reb Yechiel had such an exemption. But he was still in grave danger of execution by hanging for escorting Berniker, who was evading enlistment.

They continued walking and said viduy perhaps five or six times. Reb Yechiel whispered to Berniker, "Don't be afraid, and don't look at them." They continued in this manner until they reached the officer, who noticed that they appeared to be engrossed in conversation. They passed the officer, who allowed them to proceed without stopping them. It was a miracle! They were saved.

Although they had passed the officer, they still did not look back, but continued walking and saying viduy and praying. After they had gone more than fifty paces, they saw that the officer was mounting his horse, and they heard him shouting towards the long line of prisoners, "Ya'allah," which means "get going" in Arabic.

After walking some more, they realized that the officer had gone over the hill and was no longer in sight. Then they stopped, looked around carefully to be absolutely sure that no one was in sight. They sighed with relief, and hugged and kissed each other. They thanked G-d for having saved them from danger.

At that moment, Berniker said to Reb Yechiel, "Reb Yechiel, you have fulfilled the mitzvah about which our Sages say, 'He who saves one person's life is considered as if he had saved the entire world.'1 Please do everything possible to arrive at the World to Come with this precious mitzvah intact, so that it will not be lost to you."

Reb Yechiel was elated for years afterwards that Berniker had appreciated the chesed that had been done for him.

Berniker appreciated the great effort and sacrifice that Reb Yechiel Varker had made for him. We must also be prepared to make great efforts and sacrifices for the welfare of our children.

Why did the well which had traveled through the desert with the Children of Israel disappear at the time of Miriam's death? So that everyone would understand what a great and righteous person she had been, and this would influence them to show chesed and come to her funeral to pay homage to her.

When Miriam died and Moshe and Aharon were busy arranging her funeral, the Jewish people were searching for water and were unable to find any. They immediately gathered together to complain. When Moshe and Aharon saw them coming, Moshe asked Aharon, "Why are they gathered and coming toward us?"

Aharon replied, "Are they not the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov? They are people who do chesed, and sons of people who do chesed."

Moshe said to him, "Don't you recognize the difference between this gathering and other gatherings? This is not a gathering for a constructive purpose, but rather for a destructive purpose. If it were for a constructive purpose, they would have been led by the officers of the thousands and the officers of the hundreds. And you say that it is a gathering for the sake of doing chesed?"

The Jewish people immediately started complaining to him, as it is written, "And the nation argued with Moshe."

When Moshe and Aharon saw their angry faces, they escaped to the Tabernacle. To what is this comparable? To a very important officer who was being admonished by the people, and he ran to hide in the king's palace.
(YALKUT 762, par. "Kach")

Why did G-d want people to do chesed with Miriam and come to her funeral when, in her lifetime, she had been the one who had done chesed for others and would not have wanted to bother them? Why did Moshe ask Aharon to explain the purpose of their gathering, when he knew quite well what the answer was? Why did Aharon answer as he did? What did Moshe mean when he said that if it had been for a constructive purpose the people would have been preceded by their leaders? What was the purpose of Moshe and Aharon's escape to the Tabernacle, and what can be learned from the parable? Why did the people not realize the connection between Miriam's death and the cessation of the water of the well, and instead they came complaining?

Giving Honor Where It Is Due

[The well disappeared with Miriam's death to] influence them [Israel] to show chesed and come to her funeral to pay homage to her.

The reason G-d wanted people to show chesed to Miriam and come to her funeral was because doing chesed with a deceased person is called "chesed shel emes," true chesed. One cannot expect a favor in return for such a chesed, since the deceased cannot return favors. In the case of Miriam, the chesed of coming to her funeral was even more significant. It showed that people realized what great chesed Miriam had done during her lifetime. In her merit they had water to drink for forty years in the desert. Thus, someone who did not participate in her funeral was showing ingratitude for the goodness they had received from her.

Although Miriam in her lifetime would have shied away from honor, that does not free the people who have received so much from her from giving her the honor she deserves. It is important to show gratitude, and the person receiving the gratitude can react as he sees fit, but the gratitude must still be shown where it is due.

Judging Others Correctly

Moshe asked Aharon, "Why are they gathered and coming toward us?"

Moshe asked Aharon to explain the purpose of their gathering, even though he knew the answer quite well. The way in which a person interprets the motives of other people reveals his own character. Our Sages say that when someone calls other people "pasul," that judgment is a reflection of himself.3 These words of our Sages proved helpful to me personally in the following instance.

When my wife was abroad and I had small children at home, I had a couple staying in my house to help with the children and the cooking. There was also a maid coming in every day to clean. One day the maid said to me, "How do you allow a couple to stay in your house? Aren't you afraid that they will steal from you when you are not looking?" When I heard that I recalled the words of the Talmud that when someone calls other people pasul, that judgment is a reflection of himself. Right then and there, I suspected that she herself was stealing. Sure enough, in her bag were things taken from my house. I told her that if she did not bring everything back that she had stolen from us, then I would inform the police. Upon hearing that, she came to work the next day with a gigantic bag full of things she had stolen from my house.

This explains the way in which a person occupies his own mind. Since this woman was in the habit of stealing, that was in her mind, and she thought that others behaved in the same way she did. Aharon was a person of such chesed, that our Sages tell us about him that he "loved peace, running after peace, and bringing people close to Torah."4 His whole life was dedicated to chesed. Therefore he judged others based on the way he himself was, and he truly believed that the Jewish people were coming to do chesed with Miriam after her death.

Although Moshe knew otherwise, he still asked Aharon for his opinion, as he wished to teach Aharon the wisdom of life. The verse says, "With honest people be straight-forward." If a person is simple you should act towards him with simplicity. But the verse continues, "With someone who is deceitful be cunning." You must react to people according to the way they act towards you, since otherwise you will be cheated and taken advantage of. Therefore Moshe wanted Aharon to learn to judge the Jewish people corectly.

Ask Advice From Elders

"...If it were for a constructive purpose, they would have been led by the officers of the thousands and the officers of the hundreds..."

When Moshe said that if the people had been coming towards them for a constructive purpose they would have been preceded by their leaders, Moshe was teaching us an important lesson in life. For every major decision we make in life, we must first consult with a gadol or a rabbi or talmid chacham to be sure that we are making the right decision. The Torah gives the rabbis the wisdom they need to give us the correct advice.

Our Sages say, "If young people tell you build and old people tell you destroy, listen to the old people and don't listen to the young people because the building of young people is destruction and the destruction of old people is building." The classic example of this is seen in the actions of Rechavam, who consulted young people instead of the elders, and he therefore made the wrong decision and lost the majority of his kingdom.

Even though it may seem that what we are doing is constructive, in reality it will be destructive unless it is done under the guidance of the rabbis. Therefore, when Moshe saw that the Jewish people were not consulting their elders, he knew that their purpose was destructive.

The Jewish People's Mistake

When Moshe and Aharon saw their angry faces, they escaped to the Tabernacle.
[This is comparable to] a very important officer who was being admonished by the people, and he ran to hide in the king's palace.

Running to the Tabernacle signifies that Moshe and Aharon were asking G-d to advise them and to protect them from the anger of the masses. They had not told the well to stop giving water, but rather this was G-d's decision, since Miriam was no longer alive for G-d to provide water in her merit. Moshe and Aharon were the messengers of G-d, and since the Jewish people had complaints against G-d's actions, they had to convey these complaints to G-d.

The Jewish people did not realize the connection between Miriam's death and the cessation of the water of the well, and instead they came with complaints to Moshe and Aharon. They felt the thirst in their throats. There was no water anywhere. Their mistake was that they let their physical discomfort overwhelm them, and therefore they forgot their spiritual obligations. Instead of realizing that Miriam's death had caused the water to cease flowing, they concentrated only on their immediate problem.

This demonstrated a lack of gratitude, since their obligation to show their appreciation of Miriam's greatness should have overridden their discomfort. They should have first expressed their sorrow about the loss of Miriam and only then complained about their thirst.

Children Must Appreciate Their Parents' Leadership

As we discussed previously, something done without the approval of the leaders and the rabbis is destructive rather than constructive. When a child is still young, his parents take the place of leaders and rabbis. Every child must feel that his parents are guiding him in life. He must be trained to listen to his parents and not be allowed to do what he wants. Without that discipline, he will not be able to accept his parents' advice and guidance, and later on in life he will not be able to accept the guidance of the rabbis.

The training of discipline must start as early as possible in your child's life. Do not let him do whatever he wants when he is a small child, and rationalize this by saying, "When he gets older I shall train him." The child must know that he must listen to his parents, and there is no possible alternative. The older a child becomes, the harder it will be to begin disciplining him. This is especially true when he is a teenager, when a child feels the need to be independent, and he does not want to be told what to do. If you have given your child a good early start with proper discipline, you will be able to handle this difficult period.

Discipline means that the child accepts his parents' authority without question. If a child asks "Why," the answer should be, "Because I say so." If we try to explain our reasons for everything to the child, he gets the idea that only something which is understood has to be done. Then if he does not understand he will not obey. This is a very dangerous attitude, since we know that the whole Torah is based on, "We shall obey and we shall hear,"9 naaseh venishma. We do not obey only after we understand, rather we obey faithfully what we are told even if we do not understand. Training a child to understand everything he is told is in effect training him not listen to the Torah, since not everything in the Torah can be understood.

A child who is not disciplined when he is young is likely to be weak in performing G-d's will as an adult. Furthermore, when a child never learns discipline when he is young, he runs the risk of getting into trouble with the law, since he has never learned to control himself and do what he is told. This may be an extreme example, but it can happen in any home if we are not careful.

Discipline Is Vital in Every Facet of Life

Disciplining a child will help him not only in Torah, but in every facet of life. Whether the child will be learning or working when he is an adult, it is essential to be self-disciplined. When he is told to be somewhere at a certain time or to fulfill a task, he will be able to do so only if he was trained at an early age to obey exactly that which he has been told. Only someone who has been trained in self-discipline will be successful in life.

Never make deals with your child. For instance, do not say, "If you do not do your homework, you will not go out to play." By making such a statement you are bargaining with your child and teaching him that the price of not doing homework is not to go out to play today. He might then decide that it is worth not doing his homework and playing inside instead. If he chooses this option, why do we get angry if he does not do his homework? Didn't we offer him that alternative ourselves? Also, sometimes the parents will be unable to keep their word, since the punishment they wish to give to the child is uncomfortable or inconvenient for them to follow through.

Therefore the child must learn that he must do what his parents tell him because they are the authorities in the house. There must be no "ifs" or "buts," no explanations, and no changing your mind because of the child's pleading. What a parent says must be done, without any qualifications.

Punishment without Regrets

Since a parent's decision must stand, he must also be careful not to say anything that he will later regret. For instance, you might regret saying to your child, "If you do not do your homework, you will not go out to play for a whole week." Keeping the child in the house the whole week can be quite a headache, and you are bound to give in to his pleading due to the fact that you yourself are suffering from the punishment. When you change your mind, you are showing that your stand is weak and that you do not really mean what you say.

Make punishments brief and effective. Sometimes a stern disappointed look shown to your child can do the job. The tone in your voice tells him that you will not take no for an answer. If there is no other choice and all other ways have been tried, then you might also give your child a light smack. It does not have to hurt physically, since it is the fact that you are hitting him that hurts more than the actual smack. Remember that hitting a child should be an extremely rare punishment, and only after all other methods have not succeeded.

A clever way of teaching a child discipline is to tell him to do things he will do anyway. For instance, if he likes ice cream, tell him to eat his ice cream. That he will readily do because he likes the ice cream. But even in this way he is becoming accustomed to discipline, since he is doing what you have told him to do.

When we discipline a child, we are giving him the tools he needs to succeed in life, and in the end he will thank us for this.

1. Bamidbar Rabbah 23:6
2. Bamidbar 20:3
3. Kiddushin 70a
4. Pirkei Avos 1:12
5. Shemuel II, 22:26
6. Ibid., 22:27
7. Nedarim 40a
8. Melachim I 12:16
9. Shemos 24:7

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