By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
I received a letter from a parent complaining that his child has developed a feeling of terror because he was taught that God would punish him severely for anything he did wrong. He asked whether there isn’t some way that children could be taught that yirat Shamayim does not mean this kind of fear.
I advised the parent that while this is a legitimate point, it may sometimes be an expression of other fears that a child may have. It is wise to consult a child psychologist if a child appears to have feelings of terror.
However, the point is well taken. The concept of reward and punishment can be presented in a way that does not conflict with our concept of God as compassionate and merciful.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz explains the concept that sin has an inherent punishment. He states that if someone puts his hand into a flame, the burn he sustains is not a “punishment” for his act. It is a natural consequence. Fire burns. If you put your hand into a flame, you will get burned.
The Zohar states that the Torah was the blueprint according to which God created the world. Transgressing laws of the Torah is essentially a violation of the laws of nature and has harmful consequences. The Midrash states that the mitzvot were given to us for our benefit. The harm in committing a sin may not be as clearly evident as the burn of a fire. However, our belief in Torah should result in our knowing that doing wrong carries its own punishment.
There is also a punishment which is inflicted. A father who sees his two-year-old child run into the street to retrieve his ball will scold him and deliver a slap in the appropriately designated place. Why is this necessary? Because a two-year-old child cannot grasp the danger of running into the street. Telling him that he might be hit by oncoming cars is of no use, because he is too young to understand that. In order to protect him from harming himself, a loving and caring father must scold and spank him. The child then associates running into the street with the unpleasant discipline, and he avoids endangering himself. Once the child matures, he knows how cautious he must be to avoid being harmed.
Our finite, human minds are more distant from God’s mind than the two-year-old’s mind is from the father’s. Whereas the two-year-old eventually matures and can understand the need to avoid danger, we are forever like an infant in relation to God. We may not be able to understand just how transgressing a mitzvah is harmful to us. Like a loving father, God discourages us from harming ourselves by associating transgressions with punishment. This is clearly stated by the prophet, “God disciplines those whom He loves.” God does not punish out of anger but out of love.
Of course, if parents wish to convey these concepts to their children, they must role model for them. The Torah equates reverence for God with reverence for parents. Children initially formulate their concept of God as a parent. If parents react and punish a child out of anger, it will be difficult for the child to understand that God does so out of compassion.
It may not always be easy for parents to control their anger when their children provoke them. The Talmud states that the verse in Shema “to love God” also means “to make God beloved.” We can help our children achieve a better grasp of God by teaching them, but even more so, by role modeling for them. With this form of training, our children ultimately will understand that yirat Shamayim and ahavat Hashem are one and the same.
The founder and medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Dr. Twerski is one of the country’s leading experts on alcohol and drug rehabilitation. He is the author of numerous books and his column is regularly featured in Jewish Action. His most recent work is Twerski on Spirituality (Mesorah Publications).