Reading through Parshat Noach there are two major events: that of the Flood and the Tower of Bavel. In both these incidents, the people are punished for their sins. In the first case, the flood is brought about because of “chamas” (defined as violence, or theft) alongside complete corruption of the land. The whole world is destroyed with the exception of Noach, his family, and animals from each species.
In the second case, the wrongdoing is less explicit, with the specific sin remaining unclear. Opinions range from the physical act of building the tower, to the rebellion against God, or to the specific language detailing that “they will make a name for themselves”, rather than calling out in the name of God. Whatever the crime, their punishment is to be divided with different languages, then scattered and dispersed all over the land.
Sandwiched between these cataclysmic events, a continuation of the flood narrative, lies the story of Noach and his family. Another misdeed takes place, here on an individual level. Again the act is ambiguous, involving Noach’s son seeing his father’s nakedness and then telling his brothers. It is disputed whether he saw his father naked and mocked him, or actually sexually assaulted him.
In all three cases, what really interests me is the response to these wrongdoings.
As parents, we know that our children trip up and go wrong. They can, and do, disobey us and commit misdemeanors. How do we, and more importantly how should we, respond?
Alfie Kohn, in his book, Unconditional Parenting, advocates for not giving punishments. Yes, he agrees with establishing rules and limits, but he is a proponent of using other practical strategies, which he outlines in this fascinating book. He argues that conventional punishments, such as time-out or the loss of privileges, may work temporarily but don’t offer a long term solution. They work through extrinsic motivation, but it is far better to create intrinsic motivation, such that the solution may come from the child. There should be a shift from “doing to” your child to “working with” your child. So in the case of your child hitting another, rather than for example, limiting screen time, an arbitrary choice to teach them a lesson, you would instead connect with your child and ask them, “what can you do to make your friend feel better after you hurt them?”
Not punishing is a paradigm shift for many of us, and not always easy to follow. However I have seen for myself that when I have punished one of my children for acting out, immediately it will backfire as either they carry out a repeat of the exact same behavior in order to spite me, or they express revenge fantasies inspired by the punishment…
Reflecting on this concept, I was left wondering if these ideas fit in with our Parsha and the punishments outlined within. There is a famous Midrash that offers us some insight. It addresses the question of why it took Noach such a long time, one hundred and twenty years, to build the Ark, since he was told the exact materials and measurements to use. The answer given is that Hashem wanted Noach to take his time, in order to give the people a chance to repent. Hashem really didn’t want to wipe them out. Ultimately, as we remind ourselves over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Hashem doesn’t want to punish us, He just wants us to do the right thing and come back to Him. In fact on Rosh Hashanah, part of our Mussaf liturgy explicitly mentions Noach and the flood, perhaps to highlight this very point. So what then can we make of these punishments? Maybe punishment is necessary? Or maybe these are cases to learn from, one-off events that needed to happen in order for us to learn the harshness and severity of punishment and to stay away?