July 2, 2009
Spare the Rod
Parashat Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9)
Corporal punishment is one of the most controversial subjects in child rearing. We have seen too many examples of child abuse from overzealous and emotionally unstable parents. At the same time, many families see nothing wrong with an occasional potch in tuchis (slap on the derriere) as a legitimate form of discipline.
As a younger parent (my oldest is now in his 20s), an open-handed slap on the tuchus, when used sparingly and at the right times, seemed like good parenting. But now with more wisdom (and gray hair), I have discovered that physically disciplining my younger children was never necessary. The more experienced and confident we become as parents, the less we need to rely on brute force in getting our children to comply with our wishes.
This Shabbat, we will read two Torah portions that have stories of hitting. The first is about Moses’ hitting of the rock: When the Jews were without water in the desert, God told Moses to speak to a designated rock and water would miraculously flow from it. Moses disobeyed and instead of only speaking to the rock, he struck it with his staff. God considered this a great offense and severely punished Moses.
The second story is about the gentile prophet Balaam. On his way to curse the Jewish people, his donkey stubbornly stopped in its tracks in the middle of the road. A frustrated Balaam began to violently strike the ass to get it to move, which resulted in the animal miraculously speaking to Balaam in complaint.
The two stories of hitting are related. Both involve important lessons in discipline and the proper exercising of our free will. The reason why God was so concerned that Moses should speak to the rock instead of hitting it was because He wanted the rock’s “behavior” to be an example for the Jewish people. God shouldn’t have to “hit” us — that is, present us with suffering and affliction — in order for us to be instilled with the fear of God. Just as Moses’ word would have sufficed for the rock to flow forth its water, God’s command is reason enough for us to comply with His wishes.
Moses spoiled the lesson by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it. The implication now was that the Israelites were still like immature children who needed to be spanked every time they disobeyed, and that God was like an inexperienced parent who needed to hit His wayward “children.” But in reality, the Jews had matured as a people and could be taught the ways of righteousness without being presented with suffering as a motivation.
God choreographed Balaam’s donkey, knowing full well that Balaam lacked the wisdom and maturity to approach the situation sensibly. Your donkey has more sense than you, Balaam; you fly off in a violent rage while your donkey speaks to you rationally. You should be humbled and realize that your obsession with cursing the Jews is not a rational course of action but instead an immature desire for gratification. You are like the little child who dashes after your favorite ball when it rolls into the street. I have to stop you, Balaam, by force if necessary, because you are your own worst enemy.
The Moses story demonstrates why it’s wrong to hit our children once they reach a certain level of maturity. The Balaam story demonstrates that sometimes little children (and adults who act like them) lack the maturity to be left to their own devices.
When Moses erred, he demonstrated that he could no longer lead the Jews into the Promised Land. They instead needed a new leader who would treat them as the mature children they had grown up to be during their desert sojourn.
When Balaam refused to heed the lesson of hitting his donkey, he was punished by having his free will removed altogether. All of his intended curses were reversed by God in Balaam’s own mouth into blessings. God forced Balaam against his will because he lacked the proper discretion to be reasoned with.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child.” It’s an old maxim dating back to the book of Proverbs. It is true only in very limited situations, and even then, the “rod” should not be taken literally. In the end (no pun intended), we risk doing more damage than good by hitting our children, especially once they are old enough to heed our words.
May God always instill us parents with the wisdom to love and discipline our children well.
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is Rosh Kehillah of Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Hancock Park, director of synagogue services for the Orthodox Union and a community mohel.