Our Rabbis taught:1

Greater is the assurance made by the Holy One, blessed be He, to women, than to men; for it says,2 “Rise up, you women of leisure; listen to My voice....” How do women earn [equivalent] merit? By bringing their children to the Beit HaMidrash and to the synagogue,3 and by waiting for their husbands to return from the Rabbinical academies.

The Shelah, in Shaar HaOtiot, writes:4

Like fathers, mothers are charged with the disciplining of their children—even more so. For mothers are not as preoccupied [with matters outside the home] as fathers are, and are more often at home with their children. Fathers, in contrast, are usually preoccupied [with other concerns]: If a father is a Torah scholar, he may be engrossed in his studies [to the extent that he] cannot keep tabs on his child’s activities; and if he is engaged in business and travel, then he is usually not at home.

Further, he writes there:

Since women are soft-hearted, they are obligated, in this area, to robe themselves in a cloak of masculinity: namely, to act stout-heartedly in admonishing their children with a “rod of correction.”5 A mother must strike her child as necessary, paying no attention to his complaints, until he turns from his wicked path, to a goodly and upright one. I would suggest that the verse,6 “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their children,” alludes to this matter. Meaning: those women who show compassion by not employing corporal punishment when called for, in fact, boil their children i.e., they slay them. It is as if they themselves slaughtered and cooked them. . . .

How truthful are his holy words! Indeed, such compassion is nothing but an act of sheer cruelty. A person who rebukes his son, admonishing him for all his errant ways and meanderings, he is a truly merciful parent. For this rebuke benefits his child in This World and in the World to Come, as explained above, and will be later amplified further.

The sagacious King Solomon, of blessed memory, advises,7 “Chastise your son while there is hope, and to his death do not pay heed.” The Reishit Chochmah explains8 that even if your son is obtuse, do not presume that reproach is futile. Rather, chastise your son, for through instruction and ethical guidance, there is hope. Though he may not have understood his lessons until now, perhaps from this point onward, he will. If he can’t understand a lot, he’ll absorb at least a little.9 Do not say, “If I chastise him further, he will die under the rod,” for the verse instructs us “to his death do not pay heed.” The author of the Reishit Chochmah writes further there:

The words “to his death” refer to a child’s screaming and crying. Thus the passage is interpreted as meaning: when you employ corporal punishment, have no compassion on him. Do not be merciful on account of his cries, for it is written,10 “You shall beat him with a rod and shall deliver his soul from She’ol.”

Similarly the verse says,11 “Do not spare a child from rebuke, for when you strike him with a rod, he shall not die.” The Metzudot Dovid comments,12 “He will not die from this [strict discipline]—it is only a small hurt.”

After an honest analysis of the matter, we will see that the damage and pain suffered by a child who grows up without guidance and ethical direction far exceeds that which he would endure were he punished for his misbehavior. For the puerile nature of a youngster brings him to behave in ways that are detrimental to his soul—Heaven forfend.

Similarly, if permitted to do so, he and his friends would play dangerous games, and one child might accidentally injure the other. Other forms of physical harm13 could also occur as a result, G‑d forbid.

Even greater, though, is the spiritual damage that he wreaks, for [through an undisciplined upbringing] he becomes unmanageable and completely unruly (in the vernacular: “wild”). This unruliness, in turn, gives rise to numerous specific problems:

The child listens to no one—not even to his parents—and brooks no interference to the fulfillment of his desires. He can neither concentrate nor focus his thoughts on even mundane matters—let alone on his Torah studies. Failing to hear what is spoken to him, he is oblivious to what he is taught. He eats without reciting a blessing, without washing his hands, and without saying the Grace after Meals.

Though still young, he unabashedly repudiates the words of his parents. And though they sternly rebuke him afterwards, it is to no avail; he remains unmoved and just runs away, and so forth. Many other types of harm will be incurred [by a child through neglecting to castigate him].

Consequently, parents must guide a child’s moral development at the very outset. For example, they should prevent their child from amusing himself according to the fancies of his capricious heart, as his juvenile nature prompts him. A child should be permitted to play only quietly, and only those games that are not dangerous, as noted above.

Similarly, they should compel him to study more than he is accustomed to (i.e., they should increase, from time to time, his responsibilities in Torah study, in accordance with his strength. As Rav Shmuel bar Shilas stated,14 “Feed a child Torah as you would feed an ox.”). Likewise, [parents should make increasingly greater demands of the child] in terms of him showing common courtesy, and exercising other commendable character traits—whether in his relationship with G‑d, or in his relations with people.

Although it may be onerous for him to sustain this, to constrain his youthful disposition and to bear the scholastic and ethical pressures placed on him—nevertheless it is merely a minor discomfort that will do him no physical harm. And if he does become a little enfeebled, this is no reason for concern. For once he becomes accustomed to his more difficult regimen, he’ll recoup his strength. This [temporary debility, at any rate] is far less severe than the bodily harm—and certainly the spiritual harm—that would be borne if the child were not properly raised.

Thus, when parents guide their child with ethical instruction, his soul benefits by acquiring Torah wisdom, and by [being inculcated with the trait of] self-subordination,15 and other good character traits and morals. But if the contrary is true, G‑d forbid, then his soul will be seriously injured. For then he grows up to be utterly insubordinate and dissolute in his relationship with G‑d and with the people around him.

He then continues to grow up in this fashion: possessing no underlying reason, his natural emotive-traits become forceful as those of an animal. Devoid of Torah knowledge and training in the service of G‑d, he follows the whims of his heart. Bereft of positive character traits and scruples, he’s insensitive to his fellow man. And if he should possess any innate rationality, he uses it exclusively to his own advantage, and to the detriment of the next person.

He also falls victim to the attributes of arrogance and self-aggrandizement, which are themselves the source of many other ignoble traits. He negates his parents’ words and acts with sheer impudence towards them, etc. There are many, many more, similarly deplorable traits [fostered by an unguided upbringing].

Such a child resembles a wild woodland tree that grows unattended. Though its tree-top by nature spreads widely, the tree itself is still lowly and loathsome. Its network of branches twist so tortuously that the tree is shunned by all passers-by. Its fruits taste bitter and are harmful. Laden with large and terribly tough needle-like leaves16 that prick anyone venturing too close, the tree frightens people off.

However, a garden tree is cared for by its owner who trains and beautifies the sapling while it matures. He protects it from anything injurious, and prunes it, removing any dead or dying branches;17 he waters it at the right seasons and times, and according to the measure required for its optimum growth. Once established, the tree grows straight and its branches are sound. Such a tree is pleasing to the eye, and its fruit, sweet to the palate. Eating of its fruit and sitting in its shade, the garden’s owner rejoices over the tree.

After pondering this analogy closely, one will discern all the details of its analogue. For man is like a tree of the field,18 and as he grows, so he will be. If in his youth he is raised receiving ethical instruction from his “fathers”—from the wise people who guide him in acquiring wisdom, sterling character traits, and G‑d’s Torah—and the fear of G‑d is rooted in his heart, then his essential core will be good. His character traits will be virtuous and his deeds noble. As he continues to grow, and to increase his knowledge of Torah’s wisdom and his fear of G‑d, the child’s character and conduct will grow correspondingly more refined.

For the Torah contains [guidance and standards regarding] virtuous deeds and character traits, such as; parental respect, the attribute of truth and love for one’s friend—all their respective details as well. The Torah warns against falsehood, conceit, egotism, tale-bearing, gossiping, jealousy—against stealing, robbing, murder, and so forth. Our holy Torah, especially the pnimiyut of Torah,19 purifies and refines every single trait, ensuring that each will be absolutely true.

Accordingly, the Bartenura explains the reason that tractate Avot begins with the words, “Moshe received the Torah at Sinai”:

[For tractate Avot] is comprised wholly of moral and ethical lessons. Now the sages of other nations have also composed books of ethical teachings—products of conjecture—describing how people should relate to one another. Therefore the Tanna begins this tractate with the words, “Moshe received the Torah at Sinai,” informing us that the character-traits and ethics taught therein were not contrived by the Sages of the Mishnah. Rather, these ethical teachings too were revealed at Sinai.

Since the sages of other nations conceived their notions of what constitutes attributes of proper ethical conduct on the basis of sheer supposition—though some of their attributes coincide [in a general way] with those of the Torah20—these sages delimited and constrained each attribute arbitrarily.

(Consider, too, their failure to refine their own characters, having moralized but not having practiced themselves what they taught. Even their ancient philosophers did not purify their own character-traits in the end, as is known; how much more so is this true of their modern-day scholars. If so, how is it possible for them to truly purify their emotive-traits? For the nature of the soul—even its concealed aspect—is self-deceptive, as I will elucidate later, G‑d willing.)

However, the qualities and morals demanded of us by our holy Torah are utterly pure and refined.21