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Beloved Children

by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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Parshas Vayelech

Appropriate Punishment

And he said to them, "I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I am no longer able to go out and to come in, for the L-rd has said to me: You shall not cross this Jordan." (DEVARIM 31:2)

One Friday morning, when Rabbi Mordechai Progremansky was traveling by train, he found himself sitting next to another Jew, who was a shochet and a mohel. As it turned out, both were traveling to the same destination. They introduced themselves to each other and became so engrossed in conversation that they did not notice when the train passed their stop.

Suddenly the shochet looked out the window and noticed what had happened. He informed Rabbi Progremansky, and they both realized that their mistake made it impossible for them to reach their destination before Shabbos. The shochet began to worry. Where would they spend Shabbos? How would they find another Jew out in the country? What would they eat?

Rabbi Progremansky tried to calm him down and said, "A Jew never loses his way. Wherever a Jew finds himself, he has been guided there from Heaven. This can be proved from the explanation of Rashi on the verse, 'And she departed and she wandered astray.'(1) Rashi says that since the expression of wandering astray is used only when speaking of a gentile, we can deduce from this that a Jew never loses his way."

When the train arrived at the next stop, Rabbi Progremansky and the shochet got off. They found themselves in a completely unfamiliar gentile village. They looked for the stationmaster and inquired if there were any Jews living there. He replied that there was a single Jew living in the village, and he pointed them in his direction. They immediately made their way to his house, and knocked on the door.

When the man opened the door and saw the two rabbis standing in the doorway, he began to cry with excitement. He was certain that in front of him stood Avraham avinu and Eliyahu hanavi.

Their arrival could not have been timed better. After their host invited them in he explained his situation. A week ago his wife had given birth to a boy. Today was the eighth day, and he had been crying and praying to G-d all day that He would bring him someone to circumcise his son. The shochet, who was also a mohel, performed the bris on the child, and Rabbi Progremansky was the sandak. The two then remained with this Jew and his family for Shabbos.

After Shabbos, when they took leave of their host, Rabbi Progremansky reminded the shochet, "You see, a Jew never strays on the road!" (SHE'AL AVICHA VEYAGEDCHA II, p. 305)

Rabbi Mordechai Progremansky and the shochet found themselves, with G-d's help, at the right place at the right time. This enabled them to do a great mitzvah. We must exert ourselves so that we can guide our children and train them not to "stray from the road."

A decree was given ten times to Moshe that he would not enter the land of Israel. However this harsh decree was not irreversibly sealed until G-d appeared to Moshe and told him, "It is a decree from Me that you shall not cross." This is what the verse says, "For you shall not cross this Jordan."(2)

This matter did not seem irreversible to Moshe, since he said to himself, "The nation of Israel has committed several great sins, yet when I asked G-d to have mercy on them, He accepted my plea." As it is written, "Leave Me alone and I shall destroy them [the Jewish people]."(3) What is written afterwards? "And G-d said: 'I have forgiven as you have requested.'"(4) From this Moshe deduced: If He accepted my prayers for the Jewish people who have sinned, how much more likely is it that when I pray for myself my request will be accepted, since I am free from sin.

But when G-d saw that the matter was not weighty in Moshe's eyes and that he did not plead for mercy, He immediately became angry and swore by His great name that Moshe would not enter the land. (YALKUT 940, par. "Hen")

Why was the decree never sealed, even though it was given ten times? It would appear that Moshe's reasoning was valid. The Jewish people sinned more than he did and nevertheless they were forgiven. Therefore what was wrong in Moshe believing that he, too, would be forgiven? Why was G-d so angry with Moshe for not pleading for mercy? Why did Moshe's complacency cause his fate to be sealed?

Beg for G-d's Mercy

Moshe deduced: If He accepted my prayers for the Jewish people who have sinned, how much more likely is it that when I pray for myself my request will be accepted, since I am free from sin.

The decree against Moshe was never sealed because the gates of mercy are never closed and a person can always plead for G-d's forgiveness. That is what our Sages say: "Even if a sharp sword lies upon a man's neck, he should not give up his hope for mercy."(5)There is no limit to G-d's kindness and no matter how serious the situation seems, G-d can always save a person.

Even though Moshe's reasoning was correct, his complacency was his downfall. Whenever G-d warns us about an impending punishment, this should be accepted with utmost seriousness. We should tremble in fear at such a warning, since the One who threatens to punish us is fully capable of doing so. Therefore Moshe's complacency was misplaced and became the reason for G-d's anger.

G-d wants us constantly to ask for mercy. All the painful things that happen to us are opportunities for us to ask for mercy and consequently to come closer to Him. Our task in life is to try to draw nearer to Him by recognizing His kingship and doing His will. We must ask for G-d's mercy, since by acknowledging our great need for Him in our lives we come ever closer to Him.

If we are indifferent when something bad comes our way, it is as if we are saying that we do not wish to take advantage of the opportunity to come closer to Him. Even a person as great as Moshe, who was nearer to G-d than any other human being, was not allowed to ignore such an opportunity.

It is important to emphasize that G-d's anger is not like human anger but rather it represents how we perceive G-d's actions towards us when we suffer.

We Need Reminders to Depend on G-d

But when G-d saw that the matter was not weighty in Moshe's eyes and that he did not plead for mercy, He immediately became angry...

Our Sages tell us that we must pray morning, afternoon, and evening. This regimen was established to remind us constantly how much we need G-d in our lives. Our Sages felt that if we were to pray less than three times daily at the prescribed intervals, we would become complacent and forget our obligation to serve G-d. When things go well, we tend to forget our Creator and take everything for granted, as the verse says, "And Israel became fat and kicked."(6) Life's problems remind us how much we need G-d.

The more we realize during the good times that He controls everything, the more we can avoid having to go through bad times. If we remain aware of our responsibility without bringing Divine punishment upon ourselves, that is certainly more pleasant for us and desirable to G-d. For example, our Sages say that thunder was created to make our hearts tremble.(7) If we could make our hearts tremble without the thunder, then we would not have to go through that frightening experience.

Thunder for Your Children

Just as G-d created thunder so that our hearts would tremble in fear of Him, so must we also instill a reasonable level of awe and respect in our children for us.

A child must be taught that when his parents say something firmly, this can not be changed. Parents must stick to their decisions and not relent. Although this may seem harsh, it is really a kindness, since it will provide children with a sense of stability.

Many parents say things out of anger or excitement and then later regret what they said. Never say anything to your child when you are angry. At those times you will not have the proper judgement to make sensible decisions which you will want to uphold after your anger calms down. When you become angry, go for a walk or do something else to help you cool off before you react. It is never too late to educate your children correctly.

If your children feel that you are furious when you punish them, they will feel that they are being punished not because they deserve it, but rather in order for you to let off steam. It is good to show that you are displeased, but your children can tell the difference between displeasure and anger. You should be very careful to show disapproval and not fury.

Anger is a reflection of selfishness. In this state you will not have the patience or the understanding necessary to educate your children properly.

Correct Motives for Punishment

Be careful that your motivation to punish is not the need for personal honor. "How can he not honor my wishes?" This is also a faulty motive, since your punishment will be more like revenge than an attempt to educate the child. You should always remember that your task is to educate your children with pure motives and not selfish ones. Pure motives will lead to good education, as your children will perceive your good intentions and will then be open to hearing the message you want to convey.

Another faulty motive is to want to gain honor through your child's success. You want people to say that you know so well how to train your children. Our Sages tell of a rabbi with such a motive, whose child was lost to Yiddishkeit because of his father's selfishness.(8)

Our motive should be to educate our children to serve G-d and to be helpful to other people. When we have pure motives, then the results will be positive and beneficial to both G-d and man and we will be able to take pride in our children.

Don't Cause Your Child Dread

On the other hand, do not let your child wait in dread for your decision. If you say to him, "You will pay dearly for that mistake," and then leave him in suspense, you are harming your child by instilling dread in his heart. If you do not know how to react, wait until you have come to the proper decision before you say anything.

Leaving a child in suspense may cause him to do drastic things. He may run away from home or, G-d forbid, commit suicide. His imagination will run wild, and he may act irrationally out of fear.

Punishing a child immediately is also more beneficial since the child will understand clearly the connection between what he has done and why he is being punished. Waiting will cause bewilderment and resentment.

Match the Punishment to the "Crime"

Try to find a punishment relating to the misdeed. If your child was negligent with someone else's property, let him pay for it, at least partially, so that he will learn that negligence costs money. If he is late coming home, let him play outside for a shorter time, so that he will learn that being late gives him less free time. If he did not honor his elders, let him do chesed with people so that he will have the opportunity to improve himself in the area of treating others properly.

When the punishment fits the offense, it is most effective. This is also the way G-d acts towards us. Our Sages say that Shimshon sinned with his eyes, looking at gentile women, and his punishment was that he became blind.(9) The Egyptians drowned the Jewish babies, and they themselves were drowned in the Red Sea.(10) G-d is constantly educating us by punishing us when we sin. Any misfortune we suffer should awaken us to repentance(11).

This should also be the method we use with our children. By punishing them in a way that is related to what they did wrong, they will learn the lesson we want to teach them, that crime does not pay.

Letting a Child Choose His Own Punishment

In some cases you can let the child determine his own punishment, since this will cause him to develop an understanding of what he did wrong.

In most cases, this is not a good idea, since the child will obviously pick out the lightest punishment possible. Arguing with him about this will give him a position of power, which is not desirable. Therefore, only a very responsible child can be given this alternative. If he requests a lighter punishment than one you would have chosen, you can agree if you feel that the child can learn the lesson just as effectively. As long as he receives a punishment and relates to it in the proper manner, it does the job.

Remember that punishment is not the goal but rather the means to education. If you feel that your child has gotten the message and truly regrets his actions, there is no need for punishment, since the objective has been achieved without it.

If he has successfully gotten the message without punishment, praise your child for showing maturity. This will strengthen him for the future and he will try to continue acting maturely.

It is good for a child to receive an occasional punishment when it is given in the correct manner. In the long term, this helps him grow not only emotionally, but also spiritually.

1. Bereshis 21:14
2. Devarim 3:27
3. Ibid., 9:14
4. Bamidbar 14:20
5. Berachos 10a
6. Devarim 32:15
7. Berachos 59a
8. Tosfos Chagiga 15a s.v. "Shuva," Midrash Zuta Koheles 7:7
9. Sotah 9b
10. Tanchuma Yisro 5
11. Or Hachayim Voeschanan 4:29

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