The whip is usually an instrument of punishment, but it can also be a gift. Teachers of old used the whip to administer corporeal punishment. However, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, once wrote about a teacher that was beloved by his students. This teacher never used the whip, he simply hung it from a peg. When a student misbehaved, he would gaze pointedly at the whip and the student would get the message.
When I read this as a child, I wondered why the students loved this teacher. After all, he ruled by the threat of his whip.
I recently came across a teaching in the Zohar that helped me understand. It speaks of a child that was once whipped by his teacher. In the future, whenever he as much as saw the whip, he would remember the whipping and behave. His desire to be free from the whip caused him to be free of infraction. Says the Zohar, in the end, what granted him freedom? The whip. It set him free from his negative impulse.
The Zohar is telling us that when we are whipped, we experience it as punishment. In our eyes it is a negative—the whip is an instrument of the devil. But in hindsight, our perspective changes. We realize that the whip’s purpose, when it is administered correctly, was never to hurt us. It was to set us free from our negative impulses, habits, and obsessions. The one whipping we received, set us free for life.
It all depends on perspective. If we see the physical whip and remember the physical pain it imparted, we will see darkness. If we see the intent of the whip and the freedom that it bestowed on us, we look back and are grateful.
Two Modes of Sight
You can look with your physical eye or see with your mind’s eye. Those are two completely different kinds of sight. One beholds the physical, the other beholds the idea behind the physical—the intent. The idea was always positive though it takes on a negative patina the first time around. In retrospect, the experience is entirely positive. There is no more whipping. There is only the lesson that we learned.
In hindsight, the instrument of punishment becomes an instrument of love. The teacher who never used the whip but always showed it to them turned the whip into an instrument of love without ever using it as an instrument of punishment. In his classroom, the whip was exclusively an instrument of empowerment.
They gazed at the whip, but not with their eyes. He taught them to see it with their minds. Rather than seeing an instrument of pain, they saw the purpose of the whip—to empower them to behave. By glancing at it, he gave them their freedom. That was an act of love. It is why he was beloved.
Of course, today, we no longer use the whip or even look at it. Today’s pedagogy has moved from negative reinforcement to positive reinforcement. However, children today still need to learn the same lesson that they once learned through the whip. If they think that the reward they earn is the sole reason to behave, they will never gain their freedom. Eventually, they must transition from seeing their rewards through their physical eyes to seeing them through their mind’s eye. Establishing the purpose of the reward. Only then do they gain their freedom.
The Copper Snake
The Torah tells us that as our ancestors approached Israel after forty years of wandering in the desert, G-d instructed them to return to the desert. Thinking that this might mean another forty-year trek, they began to complain that they were sick and tired of the journey and of the Manna that they were eating.
G-d sent venomous snakes to bite them, and many died. They came to Moses filled with remorse over their outburst. G-d instructed Moses to erect a copper snake. He then instructed those who had been bitten to “gaze at the copper snake, and live.”
The Zohar explains the copper snake with the analogy of the whip that we cited earlier. On the face of it, G-d could simply have healed them. Why the elaborate solution with a copper snake?
The Zohar explains that G-d wanted them to look up at the head of the copper snake. By looking up at the snake, they would transition from the physical experience of being bitten by a snake, to its purpose. Its higher dimension.
They would realize that they were not bitten because G-d was angry and wanted to punish them. They were bitten to teach them the dangers of using one’s mouth inappropriately. The tongue is the most powerful tool in the human body. The tongue can be used as an instrument of life and as an instrument of poison and death.
We can use our words to build people up, to create cohesion, and establish community. We can also use our words to knock people down, tear people apart, and destroy community. Our tongue can be an elixir of life or of toxicity. When they were bitten by the snake, they realized how painful it can be when a mouth is put to venomous, inappropriate use.
This helped them transition from seeing the snake as an instrument of venom to an instrument of freedom. It set them free from the poison of venomous words. As the Torah says, “they would gaze at the copper snake, and live.” The bite was painful at first, but in the long run, it granted them the ability to live truly, fully, and freely.
The sad truth is that life is filled with all kinds of pain. Trauma, addiction, abuse, shame, vulnerability, humiliation, failure, and depression. It is one long string of negative events. If we count the number of times that we were brought low or saw other people brought low, we might grow bitter.
The solution is to shift from looking at the pain to gazing at the gain. From looking at the physical event to experiencing its benefit; its purpose. Not what happened, but why it happened. Every time we are set back, we have an opportunity to be set free. Every time we are pushed backward, we have an opportunity to leap forward. Every time we are brought low, we have a chance to vault high. Every time we are broken, we have a chance to rebuild and start anew.
The steel of our character is tempered by the hardships of life. The more we are tried, the more we grow. The more we suffer, the more sensitive we become. When G-d sends us a challenge, it is not to punish us, it is to tell us to dig deep because we are ready for another leap. The routine of the past had become stifling. It was holding us back and not letting us reimagine our future. The sudden jarring stop to our life trajectory forces us to think again, to reimagine. To come up with something better, stronger, deeper.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe once edited a student’s essay. She wrote, “the hard life of a Chasid” and the Rebbe amended it to “the hardships in a Chasid’s life.” The message was that our hardships don’t define us—don’t make our life hard. They are catapult platforms that enable us to leap ahead.
Look up, not down. See the snake’s purpose, not its bite. Feel the whip’s gift, not its pain. Remember that only through pain is there gain. This way, even the whip can be a blessing.