Spare the Rod

Modern society has long debated the merit of corporal punishment. Generations of children were raised with physical discipline, but current popular psychology argues against it. Today, the rod must be spared, even when children stubbornly refuse to comply, lest the children be spoiled. 

What is the Jewish law with regard to this question? The Talmud steaches that teachers and parents may, on occasion, use corporal punishment to enforce discipline. However an interesting biblical episode seems to contradict this position.

Striking the Rock

Accompanying our ancestors in their journey through the desert was a miraculous well that provided drinking water. Upon their arrival to the wilderness of Zin the well dried out and Moses turned to G-d for direction.

G-d instructed Moses to take his staff, gather the nation and order the rock to yield water. Moses gathered the nation and spoke briefly to the rock but the water did not come forth. Moses then raised his rod, struck the rock and water gushed forth abundantly.

Moses provided the water but failed the test. G-d instructed him to speak to the rock but  Moses used his rod instead. For striking the rock, Moses was severely punished.

This story seems to  support the modern contention, contradicting the above stated Talmudic dictum. Moses was punished for using the rod because force should never be an option where words might suffice.

When the Heart is Closed

I would argue that the key lies in the object that Moses struck. Moses struck a rock and that was wrong because a rock-like student must never be struck. What is a rock-like student?

When rock-like terminology is used in the Torah, it usually refers to the heart. The Torah says, “And I shall remove the heart of stone from within you.” A heart of stone is a closed heart. Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of our history, had, in his youth, a heart that was closed to Torah.

In his youth, Rabbi Akiva refused to study Torah. One day, however, he observed a trickle of water that had, after many years, formed a depression in the rock face upon which it dripped. Rabbi Akiva reflected that if water-drops can erode a rock-like surface, then surely words of Torah can impact a heart of stone. Rabbi Akiva then entered the academy and became a scholar of great repute.

If Rabbi Akiva were physically forced to attend the Rabbinical academy, would the words of Torah have penetrated his heart? Surely not! A closed heart speaks the language of the word, not the rod. It is immune to the rod. Our sages taught that words spoken from the heart always enter the heart to which they are spoken.

This is true of a student whose heart is closed but whose mind is open. What of the student whose mind is closed but whose heart is open? Words can enter a closed heart  but can words enter a closed mind?

When the Mind is Closed

Can words restrain a mother from rushing into a blazing inferno to find her missing child? No. nothing short of physical restraint can impede her headlong rush. This is because she is, at that moment, controlled by her heart, her mind is closed to reason. Words of reason cannot enter a mind that is closed to reason.

A child, who has yet to mature intellectually, is controlled by passion more than  intellect. Words are simply inadequate for a child in the flow of emotional outburst. On occasion, when the mind is closed and emotion pours forth, the child requires restraint, not reason.

When a child, who is driven purely by emotion, repeatedly fails to obey instruction and  wanders out into a dangerous road s/he is, at least momentarily, impervious to verbal instruction. When the mind is closed and the heart is wide open the only effective language is a touch of physical discipline.

In the interest of full disclosure, I shall inform the reader that I am a product of corporal discipline. I recall at least four occasions when I was physically disciplined and I deserved every one of them. It has caused me no long-term anguish and I bear no grudge for what was done to me.

The Art of Administration

I may have been the recipient of physical discipline but I do not deem myself worthy of administering physical discipline. I firmly believe that this sort of discipline requires a master educator for it is easily abused.

The Talmud teaches that a teacher may project a frightening air to inspire awe in the students and spur them to greater achievement. These words were carefully chosen. License is not given to be a frightening teacher, merely to project a frightening air.

As parents and teachers, we must always hold our own negative emotions in careful check. Even as we appear resolute to our students we must never feel that way within, we must never administer physical discipline in anger. On the contrary, a teacher’s heart must feel bitter and broken over having been forced to resort to physical discipline.

A Telling Tale

Chassidic folklore tells a tale of a young boy who threw pebbles at roosters and was disciplined by his father for hurting the birds. After delivering several lashes, the father retired to his quarters where he broke down and wept. The child’s violent behavior warranted corrective discipline, but it wasn’t the lashes that most impacted the little boy. From his own room the child heard his father’s wrenching sobs.

This brought tears to the child’s eyes. It broke his own little heart and cleansed his soul. He entered his father’s room and approached him with contrition. He kissed the hand that  struck him and embraced his father tightly. The child never needed to be disciplined again. He was a changed person.

It was ‘t the rod that inspired the child to gentle kindness, but the love with which it was administered.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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