Chinuch: Teflon-Coated People

By Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein

I am certain that none of Inyan’s readers have been counting my written offerings to these pages; so predictably no one knows that the article upon which I now embark marks the bicentennial of my chinuch articles published in this prominent weekly.

In fact, I have not been exactly counting either. However, my computer has. It lists serially the numbers of all of my chinuch articles; and this one happens to be No. 200. That constitutes for me a milestone in my ongoing privilege of sharing my views on chinuch matters… such as those views may be!

This, in itself, is perhaps not the stuff of which celebrations are made. Nor do I mention this fact to be self-congratulatory in any way. I mention it merely because I feel a specific connection between this bicentennial and a parashah-related theme, and one that is also related to the Yamim Tovim that have just passed. The connection is the notion of hakaras hatov.

So, before I delve into the topic, I will express my personal hakaras hatov to Hamodia for my having the ongoing opportunity to articulate ideas on what I believe to be the rights and the wrongs in chinuch… and its partner — parenting. And now, to the matter at hand.

Children step out of line, whether they mean to or not, whether they have dark motives or not (and we certainly hope the dark ones are rare). As a result, both teachers and parents are constantly busy trying to determine what the proper response to the out-of-line behaviors should be.

Granted, each case is different from all others, making the application of a universal code of ethics in this issue a source of difficulty. On the other hand, I do believe that there is one governing principle that needs to be applied to all situations. Attempting to punish (the politically correct phraseology might be “to offer consequences”) without prior application of this principle can range from futile to abusive. That imperative is: having the child or adolescent take ownership of the wrongdoing beforehand.

It is the instinct of self-preservation that kicks in when the individual is confronted with his guilt and seeks to deflect the guilt away from himself. “I did it by mistake…” “I didn’t mean to…” “It was someone else…” and so on. It is entirely normal that a person tries to coat himself with Teflon in order to avoid having his sins stick. Confession of guilt, then, is a verbal but important dimension of a much more profound mindset: acceptance of blame, taking ownership for misdeeds.

The very first halachah in the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuvah tells us that the one component of the teshuvah process that is categorized as a mitzvas aseh, is vidui (confession) — clearly not a reference to lip service but rather to something heartfelt. The Rambam adds clearly that any and all of the punishments that an individual might receive at the hands of a beis din will not offer a kaparah, or clear his slate, unless they are accompanied by vidui and remorse — that is, teshuvah.

In the second perek, Rambam writes (halachah 8) that the primary component of teshuvah is the confession… and as noted, confessing really means a deep-seated recognition of one’s guilt. In the context of chinuch and parenting, whatever punishment is doled out to a wrongdoer — and sometimes punishments are both required and beneficial — they will be pointless if they are not prefaced by the primary component of recognition.

As a young parent, I invariably attempted to avoid punishment unless it was preceded by a talk with the particular child. “Wait for me in my sefarim room,” I would say. Then, a few minutes later, and in private, a brief discussion would ensue during which I explained the negative aspect of the wrongdoing that was committed — to ensure that my child understood… and accepted. On occasion, well maybe, on numerous occasions, I felt that some penalty was in order. However, the primary component was ensuring that there was accountability. Now, I cannot say that I was perfect in this (or any other regard… despite what my mother, a”h, used to say), but I was confident that the fatherly response was, at least in principle, the correct approach, for it was predicated on my child’s owning up to the problem.

In fact, as a principal, I would always point out to those who worked with me as teachers that a penalty must never be given if the deserving of that penalty was in doubt in the student’s mind. If that guidance is not followed, the measure will rebound, as it frequently did.

When we recently commenced anew the reading of the Torah, we found Hashem confronting Adam Harishon about the sin of the Eitz Hadaas. However, Adam pointed fingers: The wife that You gave me coerced me, he said. Seforno comments that instead of responding remorsefully, he blamed Hashem… and he blamed Chavah. He avoided taking responsibility for his actions… until it was made clear to him later that his guilt was his own!

Afterwards, Kayin assumed a similar posture when Hashem challenged him regarding the whereabouts of Hevel. “I don’t know; hashomer achi anochi? (Am I my brother’s guardian?)” Who was he kidding? asks the Kli Yakar. Kayin knew quite well that Hashem was asking him about the act of murder he had just committed; his response was merely an attempt to deflect guilt away from himself, explains Kli Yakar. Indeed, in Parashas Noach, from a review of the meforshim it is somewhat unclear who defiled Noach — was it Cham, or was it his son Canaan? Guilt does not stick easily!

As for the connection between this and the imperative for hakaras hatov, consider this: as an extension to the words of Seforno above, Ramban declares, citing a Gemara (Avodah Zarah 5a) that Adam was not only disingenuous in deflecting the blame, he was also a kafui tovah, ungrateful for the gift of a wife that Hashem had given him. By the same token, Noach’s family could have been more grateful for their salvation.

Genuine appreciation of all our blessings fosters our humility… and that is the prerequisite for taking ownership of our sins and for teshuvah.

Heightening our sense of appreciation for all who deserve it — our parents and teachers, our children and students — will, quite simply, transform us and our society into something better.

Rabbi Klein is the director of publications and communications of Torah Umesorah.

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