Handle With Care

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Published in Mishpacha Magazine, 9 October 2013

Returning from a tour of Europe in the 1930s, the American humorist Will Rogers reported on the governments that had sprung up out of the chaos that followed World War I. Among his observations was this comment regarding the newly established Soviet Union: “In Russia, they got no income tax. But they also got no income.”

imagesGiven more time, Mr. Rogers might have had a chance to observe how government-imposed poverty affects the moral fabric of a country and its people.

I was able to witness those effects for myself, up close and personal, in 1993. That was the year my wife and I taught high school in Budapest, Hungary.

We had been warned what to expect, and had been told anecdotally of a soap factory in which dozens of workers colluded with management to dilute the soap formula by adding 3% water. The result was the production of an extra 30 bars of soap per thousand, which were divvied up among the employees to be sold on the black market.

The proletariat living in the communist bloc “workers’ paradise” were thereby able to supplement an annual income that supported them for only a fraction of the year. And if an average bar of soap lasted only 33 days instead of 34, who was going to notice?

imagesArriving after nine years in Israel, my wife and I discovered that the Talmudic classification of tinok she’nishba – a kidnapped child raised in a society of thieves (Shavuos 5a) – is far more than a theoretical construct. The children we met, who had grown up behind the Iron Curtain with little exposure to basic moral values, were frightening examples of their environment. An alarming percentage of them had raised lying, stealing, and cheating to the level of high art.

Over Passover break, we took a group of girls on a trip to the picturesque town of Szentendre, on the outskirts of Budapest. We bought them tickets for the train ride out and then, later that afternoon, we bought tickets for the return fare.

Several of the girls stepped forward eagerly: “The conductor didn’t punch our tickets on the way out,” they explained, “so we can use those tickets for the way back.”

This much might have been expected from any typical secular teenagers. But the conversation had only begun.

“You only paid for one way,” we replied, “so you have to pay for the ride back.”

“No, we don’t,” they said, waving their tickets as irrefutable evidence. “These tickets aren’t punched; we can use them over again.”

“But if you don’t pay,” we countered, “that’s stealing.”

Now the students became visibly upset. “It’s not stealing,” they insisted. “The tickets are still good.”

“But that’s only because the conductor missed you,” we explained, trying to stay calm ourselves. “You can’t take advantage of someone’s mistake like that.”

They looked at us as though we were crazy. “You don’t understand,” they cried. “He didn’t punch our ticket!”

Eventually, the students relented and allowed us to buy the tickets. After all, it was the school’s money, not theirs. But they never did understand why there was anything wrong with reusing their tickets, or why my wife and I insisted on wasting money to buy new ones.

The effects of environment cannot be overestimated. And despite a spate of modern secular social theorists who claim otherwise, the home still exerts the most powerful influence in shaping a child’s character. Yet we find that even growing up in the same home, some children will thrive and others will flounder.

Using a seemingly innocuous parable, Shlomo HaMelech offers a subtle but electrifying lesson that explains this phenomenon: Matzreif lakesef vekur lazahav – The crucible is for silver, and the melting pot for gold (Mishlei 27:21).

The utensil called a matzreif, a crucible, differs significantly from a kur, a melting pot. In the case of the former, the metal smith holds a crucible in his hand, thereby retaining greater control over the refining process, whereas a melting pot sits upon the fire, allowing the craftsman to direct his attention elsewhere while the metal turns to liquid.

The story goes that a woman came across a similar verse (Malachi 3:3) describing the Almighty as the Purifier of silver and gold. Interested in understanding the deeper meaning of the prophet’s imagery, she visited a metal smith to ask about the process of refinement.

The smith explained that gold is a relatively hearty metal, which can be left in the melting pot without fear of compromising the quality of the final product. In contrast, the delicate nature of silver requires that it be held over the fire by hand until the precise moment when it is ready to pour. If it remains on the fire a moment too long, it may be irrevocably damaged.

imgres“But how can you tell when the precise moment has arrived?” the woman asked.

“When it is time to pour,” replied the smith, “the silver shines like a mirror. I know it is ready,” he continued, “when I can see my own reflection on its surface.”

Only through heat can impurities be removed from metal – and only through trial-by-fire can impure character traits be purged from the human heart, whose nature is “evil from its youth” (Bereishis 8:21). If administered properly, this process allows a child’s G-dly nature to emerge so that his spiritual and moral conscience will prevail over the baser impulses of flesh and blood.

How much “heat” is enough? The answer differs for every individual.

According to Dictionary.com, the English word “crucible” also means a severe, searching test or trial. Some children are “gold,” in tune enough with the promptings of their neshamos to naturally find their way along the paths of truth and piety with little direction, as if their own personal malachim are lighting their way. This type of child will respond to trial and adversity naturally: like the horse that reacts to the sound of the whip and therefore never needs to feel its sting, minor disruptions and inconveniences are enough to guide such children to ever-higher spiritual levels.

But most children are “silver,” precious yet delicate, capable of refinement but vulnerable to being “scorched” by the adults responsible for raising them. Of this variety, some will resist correction moderately, accepting rebuke grudgingly after persistent repetition; others will remain obstinate in the face of all direction, whether human or Divine, heeding only the lessons that are administered by the firmest hand. In the very same classroom or home environment, therefore, some children will excel while others will struggle or rebel.

Responsible parents and teachers understand that it is human nature to avoid work in the absence of discipline, to challenge boundaries unless those boundaries are enforced, to shirk responsibility unless a child is held accountable for his or her misconduct. A child’s self-esteem does not suffer when he is corrected; it suffers when he is prevented from learning the self-discipline and responsibility necessary to experience the sweet flavor of success. But the measure of how much discipline to exert and when and how to apply it must be individualized, taking into account the nature of the child and how he will react to our well-meaning disciplinary measures.

We help our children in their quest for perfection by modeling proper acceptance of Divine “discipline.” The guiding Hand of Providence may be firm – but Hashem knows and desires what is best for all His children. Instead of raising our fists to heaven and cursing our fate when trouble strikes, the Torah expects us to respond to pain and disappointment by searching for the message that resides within every fateful circumstance. When we do, we reflect the Divine essence of our Father and Teacher in heaven and thereby enable those around us to learn from our example.

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3 Responses to Handle With Care

  1. a parent says:

    Thank you for this instruction. I found it helpful. While I will never believe that G-d is somehow behind evil or trouble, it is clear He brings His good will to prevail on our behalf in spite of the bad, the evil actions of others, etc., one way or another. Quite important to turn to Him in all circumstances then, considering His ability and intention to truly bring good out of all things if we respond by placing our trust in Him, especially since some things seem at first to be negative, then turn out to be just right. The practical message on child rearing also was very memorable and clearly put. I’m certain my husband and I (and our 6-year-old) will appreciate it’s thoughtful application in our day-to-day lives.

  2. Wondering says:

    Beautiful post. Thank you.

    How to help a traumatized child, subsequently indulged and spoiled in an attempt to compensate for the perpetration of silence around the violations – who then, not surprisingly, becomes lost and floundering in her life, even to the edges of suicide?

  3. blockyeshiva says:

    I wish I had some practical advice in response to your painful circumstance. The elixir or unconditional love, gentle discipline, and prayer can bring about miracles. But the kind of damage you describe is not easily repaired, and every case plays out differently. May the Almighty grant quick and complete healing to all those who suffer.

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