Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

V'Higadta L'Vincha

The paradigmaticmitzvah of Jewish parenting, combining rich experiential and deeply inspirational tradition with fundamental, and yet, profound, education is the hagadah. The word, "hagadah," is based on the torah's command, "V'higadta l'vincha bayom hahu leimor," (1) "You shall tell your son on that day saying."

The Ohr Hachaim (2) asks a fundamental question. The first and last words of this five-word phrase seem contradictory. On the verse, "Koh somar l'veis ya'akov v'sageid livnei yisrael," (3), Rashi quotes the Talmud, (4)"Tomar b'lashon racah, vesageid--d'varim hakashin kegidin."

The verb, amar, means gentle language. The verb, higid, means harsh language. If so, v'higadeta leimor is an internal contradiction. Do we speak to our children harshly, v'higadta, or gently, leimor? The Ohr Hachaim suggests several answers. I would like to share with you a suggestion of my own.

In general society, the practices of which are often adopted by Torah-Jewry living in that time and place, two radically different methods of child raising exist. The first is disciplinarian. Children must be taught the rules and punished if they fail to keep them. In this way, the theory goes, they can achieve great things, as their potential is directed by wiser adults and not wasted on the foolishness of youth. This 19th Century attitude, captured in works by authors as varied as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, views discipline as an end in itself, as the very essence of the upbringing of a proper, virtuous, and accomplished child.

Recently, an opposing theory has emerged. Discipline is terrible for a child's development and self-esteem. It stunts his ability to grow and achieve his potential, hence the term, "positive parenting," in which the word "no" is almost removed from the vocabulary. Children are to be persuaded that something is wrong, and not prevented forcibly from engaging in it. Misbehavior is handled by soft talk explaining that an action is wrong. There are no punishments, physical or otherwise.

In five immortal words, the Torah rejects both extremes. Parenting must begin with v'higadta, with the discipline of harsh words. Red lines must be drawn and a child who crosses them must be punished. A child who is never disciplined grows into an undisciplined adult, incapable of conforming even to the mores of general society, and certainly not to the more exacting normsof Torah u'mitzvos. American neo-conservative thinkers have attributed many teenage social ills to unrestricted permissive parenting. These ills include drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, diminished attention span, and general underachievement. Apparently, children are not wise enough to set limits and develop their potential on their own. In Torah society, in Israel and the United States, this type of education has led to the abandonment of Torah observance in great numbers of youth growing up in torah homes. Unrestricted exposure to modern general culture, given the twin developments of the decadence of society and the greater availability of modern media in the home and beyond, has overpowered the natural tendency of copying the lifestyle of the parents. Does this mean that the Torah endorses the disciplinarian approach? After all, we know that many youngsters were brought up that way and became high achievers and upstanding Jews.

The answer is a resounding no, and for two reasons. First, such an upbringing stunts growth. In the short-term, it produces results: higher grades in school, better behavior at home and in shul. But in the long-term, such an education does not allow a child to do his own thing, to develop his unique talents and personality.

Second, such a chinuch carries a significant risk of rebellion. Perhaps, in earlier times, when we lived in a world of conformity, this risk was minimal. But now, a child who behaves and achieves because he is forced to do so may rebel as soon as the ability to force him is lost. Is discipline an end in itself, enabling a parent to control a child's development, and brag of a high achieving, well-behaved child? Chas v'shalom! Discipline is only a prerequisite for the primary challenge of parenting- expressing love and warmth, sharing your innermost soul, talking gently and passionately about love of G-d, love of Torah, love of Israel, love of all creatures. Yes, v'higadta is no more than a necessary prerequisite for the lifelong responsibility and opportunity of leimor, of teaching with love and by example, as the wondrous passage of one's children into adults takes place. In these five words, the Torah has taught the secret of successful Jewish parenting. Discipline your child only in order to teach him, gently and lovingly, for a lifetime. That is all. The rest is commentary. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, sh'lit"a, wrote a book entitled "Planting and Building: Raising a Jewish Child, (5)" which expresses similar ideas. When one builds, a precise architectural plan must be followed. There is no room for imprecision or improvisation. This represents the indispensable infrastructure of torah education. A child must be clearly taught: you may not do this, you must do that. All children must conform to the basics.

The essence of education, however, is planting, enabling a child to develop in his own way, to utilize his own strengths and character traits, to grow on his own. This is "chanoch lana'ar al pi darko," (6) educate a child according to his own way. As the Vilna Ga'on comments, forcing a child against his nature, even if successful at first, is a recipe for unmitigated disaster. (7)<

Like planting, chinuch requires patience. When bringing up my own wonderful, sometimes-rambunctious children, of whom my wife and I are exceedingly, and I hope rightfully, proud, I would repeat over and over again - patience. Rav Wolbe's words, which we heard then on tape, confirmed this idea. "Chinuch hu litvach aruch" Chinuch is a long-range project. Punishment is a quick fix, but love is the only long-term option.

A word on spanking. The Talmud (8)prohibits spanking an older child, b'no gadol, based on v'lifnei iver lo sitein michshol." Rashi explains that the child may rebel and sin, and the parent is responsible for that sin. (9)

The Shulchan Aruch (10)quotes this halacha. The Rama, (11) based on a different passage in the Talmud (12), defines an older child as older than 22 or 24 years of age. This certainly strikes us as counterintuitive.

In fact, the Ritva (13)interprets gadol to mean 13, bar mitzvah, after which it is common that a youth will respond to a spanking by cursing or striking his parents, both capital offenses.

Rav Wolbe claims that today, striking a three-year old causes a michshol, a stumbling block, and is prohibited. In previous generations, children were more tolerant and had a more positive self-image, and were not damaged by spanking. Today, many children are damaged for life by spanking, especially since rebellion fills the air.

While this is a far-reaching and novel approach adopted in, and for, our times, a precedent exists in the words of the Ritva: "Lo gadol gadol mamash, elah hakol l'fi tiv'o she'yeish lachoosh sheyatris k'negdo b'dibur oh b'ma'asav, ki afilu lo y'hai bar mitzvah ein ra'ooy l'havi'o lidei makeh oh mekalel aviv, elah yishtadlenu bid'varim." (14)

Even if a child is not bar mitzvah, if, because of his nature, there is a reasonable chance that he will rebel with words or deeds, and ultimately curse or strike his parent, it is prohibited to hit him. Rather, one must persuade him with words. Thirteen is simply an average age beyond which spanking may lead to rebellion and is, therefore, forbidden. If today the age is three, then that is the cutoff, as Rav Wolbe, says.

Let me conclude with an insight from Rav Simon Schwab, zt"l (15). The prohibitions against hitting and cursing parents, U'makei aviv v'eemo mos yumas--umkalel aviv v'eemo mos yumas, (16) are separated by the prohibition against kidnapping, v'gonev ish umcharo v'nimtza v'yado mos yumas. (17) Why?

Perhaps the Torah was anticipating the question - how can a child reach such a low level that he hits or curses his father? The answer is that the father continues to control his son by spanking or otherwise beyond the age of 22 or 24. In such a case, the father is effectively enslaving his son with intimidation. If so, he is considered one who stole a person, his own son, by denying his freedom of choice and action. This is the root cause of the son's tragic descent and rebellion to the point that he may hit or curse his father. The son is put to death, but the blame lies with the father.

On Shabbos Hagadol, when we read the Hagada, and on Pesach, when we focus on the mitzvah of v'higadta l'vincha, we must remember that the primary mode of chinuch is amira, talking softly and warmly to our children. May our best efforts to raise our children properly be blessed with success.

1. sh'mos 13:8
2. op. cit.
3. sh'mos 19:3
4. shabbos 87a
5. Feldheim, 2000, Nanunet, NY and Jerusalem, Israel
6. mishlei 22:6
7. op. cit.
8. moed katan 17a
9. op. cit.
10. yoreh dei'ah 240:20
11. op. cit.
12. kidushin 30a
13. supra 12
14. ibid
15. ma'ayan beis hasho'eiva
16. sh'mos 21:15, 17
17. sh'mos 21:16

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