Sunday, August 10, 2014

Eikev 74 - Punishment or Teshuvah- Repentance

Against 'punishing kids , doesn't  the Torah - Devarim 8:5  say -You should  know in your heart that just as a father will chastise his son, so Hashem-Your God, chastises you
וידעת עם לבבך כי כאשר ייסר איש את בנו יהוה אלהיך מיסרך
Rabbi Shimson R. Hirsch notes that the word- chastise - מוסר - mussar =moral teaching has nothing to do with punishment or chastisement which focuses on making a kid suffer for past mistakes. It is about kids internalizing the education and guidance they receive from their fathers. Does God actually punish us or is it more about how we make  meaning of what happens to us? Man has the freedom of choice to interpret and explain his misfortune. It could be simply the way of the world, bad luck or misfortune,  (reward or) punishment for past behavior or God communicating to him to change his ways and do Te'shuvah. The Talmud-Kidushin 20, tells of a man who sins by doing  business with fruit from the Sabbatical year -fruit that is deemed ownerless and free to be taken by all. There is a consequence for this sin -  he has to sell his movable property , if he does not change – he has to sell his fields, then his home , his daughter , and  if he has not yet changed, he will have to sell himself to an idolater. Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz asks – why did he not learn the first time or the second time?  People find it so difficult to say they did wrong and change, especially  when people are struggling and taking knocks, since  they tend to feel sorry for themselves.
One might ask that when parents or teachers punish kids, the lesson and  message is clear and it is in the interests of the child to change to avoid the punishment.  We may think we are teaching him a lesson, but he is still  free to make meaning of what is happening to him.Usually , he learns  something completely different - you are unfair.
Already more than 700 hundred years ago the Ritbah warned that if a child would react defiantly to the discipline of a parent, the parent would be transgressing ' 'lifnei iveir lo ti'tein michshol ' – do not put a stumbling block before the blind. To put in it modern terminology, It's not what we teach it is what they learn. This means what we do doesn’t matter nearly as much as how kids experience what we do. And when unpleasant things are done to kids it makes them mad and they want to lash out. It models to them using power to get what you want and solve problems. Punishment is also problematic as it erodes our relationship with our kids and they will never feel safe enough with us to come and confide in us when they screw up. Parents and teachers are then the last ones to know when kids have screwed up. It also sends a message to kids of 'distrust '. We don't think they will do the right thing without a threat of punishment. It also distracts kids from the important issues. The agenda now is the enforcement of the punishment. Instead of reflecting on what they did, kids now focus on the punishment. Instead of feeling sorry for the kid they hurt, they now feel sorry for themselves. It just reinforces that parents or teachers are unfair and their mistake was to be caught which encourages lying. Kids will rather avoid punishment and run away from the scene than offer help to a peer whom they have hurt. Punishment makes kids self-centered and even if an explanation is given no moral learning takes place as self- interest is reinforced. It teaches kids about consequences. Not about the consequences of their actions and how they impact on others but the consequences for themselves. Punishments will never encourage a kid to ask – what type of person do I want to be, do my actions reflect my values or to do Te'shuvah.So if punishment can only at best buy us short-term compliance at great costs what should we do?
The Talmud Yerushalmi – Makot – asks – A person who sins – what is his punishment?
Wisdom and Prophecy  answer  that troubles, death  will pursue the sinner, and God answers – let him repent and do Teshuvah and in this way attain atonement.
And God is extremely patient with people. The Tomer Devorah says we should imitate God's virtues -  be patient and allow himself to be insulted, bearing the evils done by his neighbor  and yet not refuse to bestow of his goodness to the recipients, even when those evils done against him still exist ,until the wrong is righted by his friend.
Instead of punishment parents and teachers should help kids in a collaborative way to solve problems and do Teshuvah in an autonomous way. A high school kid threw a rotten tomato which hit a teacher at a lunch session. Teachers began suggesting various punishments for this serious offence. His class teacher said he would handle the situation. He was not confrontational, just said that he wants to help the kid solve the problem, reflect on what he did  and do Teshuvah .What did the kid think he could do? He said he would write a sincere letter of apology and meet with the teacher. What about the mess?   Rely on me, said the kid. The kid took a friend and they  cleaned the whole dining hall. Instead of imposing a consequence on the kid, the teacher helped the  kid reflect on what he did and engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution and do  Teshuvah- repent. And most important , the process strengthened the bond between the teacher and student.

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