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A Sweet Education

A Sweet Education

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I sat in the park near the bottom of my apartment building, watching the scene unfold in front of me. A three-year-old boy, whose mother had just given birth, came to the park with his older twelve-year-old sister. The sister sat on a bench chatting with a friend, while her little brother went to sit by the bottom of the slide. I didn’t catch what he was doing, but every time a kid slid down the slide, he bopped them on the head as they came out of the slide. I watched child after child cry, and thought to myself, “What is going on?”

She insulted him, rebuked him and yelled at himAnother mother, who was more aware than I, then came and started to scream at the top of her lungs at the little culprit. She insulted him, rebuked him and yelled at him. He didn’t flinch, or even bat an eyelid. The mother then walked over to the boy’s sister and screamed at her, insulted her and rebuked her. The girl, shamefaced, walked over to the slide and tried to get her brother to move. He wouldn’t budge. He held fast to his spot—hurt, not fully grasping the wrongdoing of his actions. She threw up her hands and walked away.

Another mother, who had been blowing bubbles with her children, walked over to the little boy and said, “Sweetness, come to the bench and see if you can catch the bubbles.” She gave him a smile, patted his head and said, “What a sweet boy you are, I’m sure that you didn’t realize you were hurting the other children. We don’t hit. Here, now, come with us and catch the bubbles.” He jumped up from the bottom of the slide in a second and walked over to her bubbles. I didn’t see him hit or “bop” another child the rest of the day. In fact, he even played nicely.

I later went over to the mother with the bubbles, and complimented her technique. “Children,” she told me, “will take medicine only if it’s coated with honey first.” It took me a minute, but I understood what she was getting at. However, I wanted to add, “It’s not just children. We all do!”

You see in Jewish law how Judaism favors the right over the left (for right-handed people, while for a left-handed person they begin with their left is their "right" hand). For example, when you wash your hands before eating bread, you wash first the right, then the left. When you put on your shoes, first the right shoe is put on, then the left. The left shoelace is then tied, and then you return to tie the right. So you start with the right and end with the right.

The right, which is (for the majority of people) the dominant side, represents chesed, kindness; the left, the weaker side, represents din, strict judgment. The Torah, which was given to the Jewish people by G‑d from a place of incredible love and out of chesed, teaches us that while strict judgment exists and is necessary, it’s not the way G‑d runs the world, nor is it the way we should always act in our lives. One must first approach each situation from the right side, the side of chesed, and then it can be approached with the left. We start with chesed and end with chesed.

One must first approach each situation from the right side, the side of chesedIn the text of the Ethics of Our Fathers, the sages ask how one defines strength. They don’t mention how many muscles you need to flex, or how many pounds you need to bench-press. The sages define strength by the ability to conquer one’s yetzer hara (evil inclination), one’s bad character traits. Strength can’t be physically measured; instead, it is measured by control. Are you strong enough to be patient? Are you strong enough not to get angry? Are you strong enough to take a deep breath and think before you yell or say those damaging words that you can never take back? Are you strong enough to judge your fellow favorably? The one who is strong, the one who dominates, is the one who uses their right side, their side of chessed, first.

Every night, before I put my children to sleep, I say with them the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is One.” I then recite with them the three paragraphs found in the Torah that follow the Shema, which begin:

You shall love the L‑rd your G‑d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise . . .

One of my teachers once explained that as parents, we have an obligation to teach and to transmit. The question is: how do we know that our children will continue to do any of things that we teach them when they are no longer in our presence? How can we ensure that the values we instill in them will stay with them when they “sit in their own houses” or when they “go out onto the road?”

The following parable sums it all up.

There was once a boy who wanted to be king. At first he bullied and yelled. He instilled fear into the hearts of all those around him, and got everyone to do what he wanted. But the moment that the king went away, no one followed his orders or obeyed his rules. The boy, now king, realized that obtaining power through fear doesn’t work in the long run. He decided to try a different way. He treated everyone with respect and kindness. He was sincere, giving, caring and kindhearted. They honored him and performed his will. Even away from his presence, they continued to follow his orders and obeyed his laws.

All the yelling and screaming didn’t help anythingI understand the first mother in the park. If my child had been bopped on the head, or if I had understand what the little boy was doing, I too might have arisen and yelled at him. But, if you notice, all the yelling and screaming didn’t help anything. The boy didn’t stop. The only thing that stopped the boy was kindness and distraction. Of course, the boy needs to learn that what he is doing is wrong, that his actions required a punishment; but he wasn’t going to accept the lesson from a place of disrespect and anger. It takes a lot of strength to overcome physical exhaustion, irritation, frustration. It takes a lot of strength not to yell or get upset, but everyone was endowed with the strength to do so. It’s the dominant strength, the strength of one’s right hand, and if you really want to get someone to learn or do something, it’s the only way to do it so that it will make a lasting impression. After all, medicine goes down so much better when it’s coated in honey.

Originally from northern California and a Stanford University graduate, Elana Mizrahi now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children. She is a doula, massage therapist, writer, and author of Dancing Through Life, a book for Jewish women. She also teaches Jewish marriage classes for brides.
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Shulamit Melbourne, Australia December 14, 2011

Thank you! What an inspiring article! All too often adults forget that children have feelings too,and that disciplining with firmness does not mean speaking aggressively. Reply

Ruth Jerusalem, Israel December 13, 2011

Lovely Thank you for this lovely, sweet article.
And as you implied, this goes not just for children. Imagine how it would be if we could have this attitude with our own inner lives? That is, instead of beating ourselves up for perceived infractions (ie what is the matter with me?!) we "spoke" gently to ourselves, acknowledging that there must be a good reason that I [whatever I did.] Reply

Malka ny December 12, 2011

What an amazing lesson about how parents should educate their children. If only all parents could read your words and learn from you. I read a lot of your articles and I always think to myself about how I would hope to be like you and learn from you when G-d willing one day I will be a mother myself. Reply

Anonymous Mesa, Arizona, USA December 11, 2011

A Sweet Education You are so right Mrs. Mizrahi, violence brings violance. If you physically punish our children, and yell at them with insulting words, that is what they are going to learn, and do as they grow up. Correcting a child from his wrongdoing in a firm, resolute, and respectful way will teach them the same behavior. Thank you for your article it is definitely a blessing if we learn from it. Reply

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