“We don’t say ‘punishment’ in this house. We say ‘consequence.’”
I’ve heard a version of this sentence uttered so many times over the past decade that I’ve lost count. But Judaism doesn’t talk of s’char vetotza’ot (reward and consequences). It talks of s’char v’oneish (reward and punishment).
Undoubtedly, many believe that our children must be protected against concepts like “punishment.” Influenced by modern psychology, they fear that their children won’t be able to handle such a “harsh” word.
But the Torah and thousands of years of Jewish success say otherwise. Already at the very beginning of Sefer Bereishis, children learn that Hashem punished Adam and Chava – quite harshly, in fact – for eating from the Etz HaDaas. He banished them from Gan Eden, shortened their lives, decreed that man would have to sweat by his brow to earn a living, and imposed the pains of childbirth upon women.
S’char v’oneish is actually central to Judaism. The 11th of the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith reads:
“I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, rewards all who keep His commandments and punishes (u’maanish) all those who transgress His commands.” It doesn’t say Hashem rewards all who keep His commandments and metes out “consequences” to those who don’t.
The Sefer Ikkarim, which reduced the principles of Judaism to three, includes s’char v’oneish among them, and the Sefer Ikkarim’s definition of a principle of Judaism is a principle without which Judaism would fall apart!
Unfortunately, watering down Judaism to accommodate modern sensibilities is increasingly pervasive. For example, I recently saw an animated version of the Purim story in an Orthodox shul that alters the fate of Vashti. Instead of being killed, she is “sent away.” So, the Torah can discuss Hashem drowning the whole world in a great flood, and Meseches Sanhedrin can go into great detail on how the verdict of sereifah is carried out by beis din – burning-hot lead is poured down the throat of the guilty man – but we have to pretend that Vashti was sent away rather than killed.
Judaism has always believed in a balance. We have ahavah (love) and yirah (fear), we have “yemin mekareves” (the right brings close) and “smol docha” (the left repels), we have chesed (kindness) and gevurah (strength). In Tanya, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that yirah and ahavah are like two wings of a bird. Imagine a bird with one wing. It doesn’t fly terribly well.
Judaism is not just fun and games. It’s not just about “positivity” and positive reinforcement. Was Yirmiyahu HaNavi “positive” when he spoke to our ancestors? The equation is really simple: As we say in Shema every day, if we act properly, Hashem will shower us with reward. If we don’t, He will inflict punishment on us.
And just like we have to know about punishment, we also have to know that life involves toil. The Gemara tells us that if someone says he succeeded without toiling (yegi’ah), we shouldn’t believe him. In the Litvish world, yeshiva boys are told over and over again that only with ameilus b’Torah (laboring over Torah) will they properly grow. To be a great Jew – indeed, to be a great anything – hard work is required. Hours and hours and hours of it. Ask any classic pianist or Olympic gymnast.
So we’re not doing our children any favors by sugar-coating Judaism or shielding them from its more “harsh” elements. Hashem is a loving father, but He also expects us to behave in a certain way. If we don’t, there will be consequences – and those consequences are punishments.
So let’s stop distorting Hashem’s Torah, and let’s keep in mind the balance He implanted in creation when we speak to our children. If we do so, not only will we remain true to the Torah; we will also create the most optimal conditions under which our children can thrive.