Moses said to the L-rd: "…If You kill this nation like one man, the nations who have heard of Your reputation will say as follows: 'Since the L-rd lacked the ability to bring this nation to the Land which He promised to them, He slaughtered them in the desert'" Numbers 14:13-16.

Slaughter. A word which connotes cold-blooded killing. A word used to dramatize and magnify the cruelty and barbarism of wanton murder. "He 'slaughtered' the village's inhabitants" has a much more powerful ring than "he killed/murdered/put to death the people of the village." And the appalling images of vile terrorists beheading helpless innocent victims clearly have added much emphasis to the cruel connotations inherent in the word 'slaughter'.

Interestingly, the (Biblical) Hebrew word for slaughter, shechita, has no negative connotation whatsoever. Slaughtering an animal isn't a cruel act; rather it is ultimately an act of kindness,1 a preliminary step in the process of elevating the animal to a spiritual level it could never achieve with its own animal powers. When the animal is eaten by a human who uses the energy provided by the meat to serve G‑d, then the animal, too, is serving G‑d, and reaches the apex of its Divine mission on this world. Definitely beats a "meaningful" existence of munching hay…

The (Biblical) Hebrew word for slaughter, shechita, has no negative connotation whatsoeverAfter the debacle of the spies, G‑d decided to "slaughter" the Jews. "How long will this people provoke Me? How much longer will they not believe in Me after all the signs I have performed in their midst?" G‑d perceived an essential character flaw in the Jews – perhaps inherited from their former Egyptian "hosts" – a lack of faith, and consequently a propensity to complain and whimper at the slightest hint of inconvenience (real or imagined…). This wasn't a nation which could endure extended battles against the Canaanite nations. A people who complained incessantly while in a paradise-like desert, where they didn't have to work and were surrounded by miracles—their whine would surely reach an unbearable pitch when they would be forced to earn an honest living in the Promised Land, with all the pressures and worries which accompany "normal" daily life.

G‑d always has our best interests at heart, and isn't given to petty feelings of vengefulness. His "punishments" are also kindness. G‑d understood that that generation of Jews would be happier in Heaven than in the land of Israel.2 He would mercifully "slaughter" them, elevating them to a higher level—and in the process would rid them of their incurable character flaw.3

The lesson from this episode is twofold:

a) When we are experiencing difficulties we must bear in mind that even if the reason for these difficulties is punishment and/or atonement for past indiscretions,4 this too is an expression of G‑d's kindness. Take it in stride!

b) Perhaps even more important, this is a vital lesson for parents and educators. Even when circumstances call for disciplinary measures, the objective must never be to exact revenge or retribution for its own sake. Therefore, ideally the "punishment" itself should be constructive. This takes much more effort; it is so much easier to fall back on the "old and tried" methods many of us are used to from our own childhoods… But who said that being a real educator is an easy task?!