After leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah, the Jewish people commit the gravest sin of their existence as a nation. In the atmosphere of the greatest spiritual heights, having just received the Torah and after hearing the voice and the mighty words of G-d, the Jewish people build a Golden Calf as a symbol of either G-d or Moses – but clearly idol worship.
Almighty G-d threatens to destroy the Jewish people for their grave sin. Moses intercedes and tells G-d, “If you destroy the Jewish people, then delete me from your Torah as well.” G-d responds, “Those who have sinned against me I will erase from my book.” Only the guilty will suffer for their sins. Those who are innocent will not be punished.
Again, when Korach and his congregation sin and rebel against the high priesthood of Aharon, Almighty G-d threatens to destroy the entire congregation. Once again Moses intercedes. “If one man sins, shall you destroy the entire congregation?” Once again G-d accedes to Moses’s argument.
Both these instances underscore the abhorrence that the Torah has toward collective punishment – blaming and punishing collectively for the sins of a few. The Torah stresses that those who are guilty must be punished for their own misdoings and not the entire group.
I recall one such event of collective punishment that occurred in my school. Things were not going well for this teacher – her class was acting up and she lost control (probably because she did not prepare her class properly). She became frustrated and announced to the children that “because of your misbehavior, there will be no recess today.” Yossi, who was sitting quietly in the back of the room with his friends, called out, “But we were sitting here not disturbing! Why should we be punished?” And then the predictable words of this teacher: “Well, you are also part of this class! If someone drills a hole in a boat, the boat will ultimately sink, and even the innocent ones will perish. The whole class must be punished!”
On the other hand, “collective reward,” used properly with discretion, has more of a chance to be successful. Let me explain.
I recall a young boy in second grade who had serious discipline and learning challenges. He was not accepted by the rest of the class. He was considered an outcast and was made fun of by the other children. No one wanted to be his friend. He was always in trouble and always sent to the principal for discipline.
That is until Morah Dvorah stepped onto the scene. She realized that something drastic had to be done to raise this child’s self-esteem and to give him a second chance so that he could also shine. She decided that the next time Danny would do something right she would respond differently.
That day came – Danny answered a tough question in the class – and Morah Dvorah jumped at the opportunity and announced: “Danny gave such a beautiful answer to my question that I will be extending everyone’s recess today by ten minutes.”
You cannot imagine what happened next!
Danny became the most popular student in the class even if just for that brief moment. The children included him in all the recess activities. Children approached him and called him their hero. There was a new person emerging, one with more confidence and self-esteem.
This strategy was repeated during the course of the year, and for the first time this young Danny actually began to change for the better.
The obvious conclusion is that collective reward, when done properly, can work. It is always better to focus on the good and the positive than to harp on the negative. Collective punishment, on the other hand, rarely is successful, and even if it does succeed, it is not the preferred way to discipline children.