“Derocheho Darchai Noam V’chol Nesivoseha Shalom” - The Torah’s ways are pleasant and lead to peace. Many a time, if one would carefully search and examine a situation, he would often find far better solutions than banning. Banning should only be used as a last resort. While banning may sometimes be necessary, it can often boomerang and cause more harm than good. Our Chachomim warned us not to issue a decree forbidding something that most of the people will not be able to adhere to. Neither are we to add bans to bans. (“Ein gozrin gezierah l’gzierah.”)
Often, parents and teachers are confronted with a troubled or difficult child. How tight do we pull the rope before it snaps and causes outright rebellion? We must do a careful balancing act between reward and punishment, between being too strict and being too lenient. Unbridled love or punishment is not always the answer, as shown by the story of Dovid’s great love for his son Avshalom.
With all the great advice given to us by even the best psychologists, rebellious children are not easy to deal with, and more love or punishment is not always the solution. Prohibitions are usually a poor educational tool and may work for some but have the opposite effect on others, and often we must choose between the lesser of the two evils.
Years ago, most yeshivas would never have taken their students snow-tubing on a regular school day. It was considered outright bittul Torah. Today, many of them realize that “Bitulo zehu kiyumo”- in the long run, what they may lose, they will eventually gain back with great interest. It’s not that they were wrong years ago. It’s that society has changed and children must often be dealt with differently.
A wise rebbi told me that he had a boy in his class who was totally into sports and wouldn’t learn a word. One day the rebbi took him aside and spoke to him privately, telling him that he would give him permission to take off from yeshiva for a day in order to attend an important basketball game, and even offered to give him the money to buy a ticket since his student couldn’t afford it. The student was jubilant and just couldn’t believe the offer. It made such a great impression on him that it changed his entire attitude toward his rebbi and the yeshiva. Eventually he became a real learner and ended up learning full time in Lakewood.
On the other hand, another yeshiva banned its students from participating in a choir, feeling it was a waste of time and would interfere with their studies. When a student who had a beautiful voice and loved music wanted to join a choir, his principal threatened to throw him out of the yeshiva. It left such a bad taste in his mouth that his learning began to suffer and to this day he hates the yeshiva and wants nothing to do with learning. Perhaps a holy soul was lost because of the inflexible refusal to bend the rules.
A friend of mine once came to see me about a problem he was having with his neighbor. He just couldn’t take it anymore. They were constantly getting into fights with one another. Sometimes he would block his driveway with his car. His kids ran around on the lawn and ruined his beautiful flowers. He kept his radio blasting so loud that half the block would hear it, so he was always forced to keep his windows shut. Every other day they would get into a screaming match - yet nothing seemed to help. His neighbor was as obstinate as can be. He was at his wits’ end, and so he came to ask my advice. Perhaps I could offer him some solution? He was even considering selling the house and moving elsewhere.
I told him that I had a very simple solution, but I would only give it to him if he promised to follow it fully. “Of course!” he replied. “I’m ready to do anything you say. I just can’t live like this anymore.”
I told him that my solution may sound very strange and I would only tell it to him if he signed a piece of paper promising to do as I said, even though it may seem outrageous and absurd. After he signed the paper, I told him to do as follows. Every Friday, he was to go to the flower shop, buy a bouquet of flowers, and deliver it to his neighbor just before Shabbos. “I guarantee you that within a short time all your problems will disappear!”
He looked at me with clenched fists and said with great anger, “Me, give that bum a bouquet of flowers? Never! The only present he deserves is a live rattlesnake. The only time I’ll send him any flowers will be at his gravesite!”
“But you just signed that you’d do whatever I say,” I replied. “Perhaps he doesn’t deserve them, but it’s the simplest and quickest way to solve your problems. Try it,” I pleaded with him. “I guarantee that it’ll work!”
I bumped into my friend five weeks later and asked him if he had taken my advice. His face shone with great joy as he told me that it had worked like a charm. They were the best of friends now, and everything was just fine. “Where did you get this brilliant idea?” he asked. I told him that I took it from the Gemara that says “gedola legima sh’mekareves,” which means that great is the drink that brings people close to one another. The Gemara bases it on a most interesting story found in Nach (Melachim 1:13). It is about a false novi who invites a true novi into his home and as a reward, Hashem turns him into a real novi. There is no better way to settle one’s arguments than over a bottle of wine and a piece of cake. In fact, this is the very advice that Shlomo Ha’melech gives us. “Im ra’av son’acha ha’cillehu lechem.” If your enemy is hungry, give him some bread. The best way to win over one’s enemy is to shower him with love.
One of Aesop’s fables tells of the wind and the sun arguing with each other as to who is stronger. They both see a person wearing a coat, and the wind begins to huff and puff in order to blow the coat off. The harder the wind blows, the tighter the man holds on to his coat so that it won’t fly away. Thereupon, the sun begins shining fiercely until it becomes so hot that the man not only removes his coat, but takes off his shirt as well. Kind words and a smile can disarm even one’s greatest foe.
Of course, there must be rules, and some things must be banned. However, if we can possibly avoid it and be flexible, we are usually far better off. As the Gemara in Taanis says “L’olam yehei adam rach k’kona v’al yieye kosheh k’erez” – A person should be as flexible as a reed and not as stiff as a cedar tree. When a strong wind comes, the reed is blown down but eventually stands back up. However, when the tall strong cedar tree is broken, it remains that way. This is why we write a Sefer Torah with a reed.
Dealing with our children or students can often be a very difficult task since what works with one does not necessarily work with the other. Even the best advice we get can often fall flat on its face. Even two identical twins can be as different as Yaakov and Esav. Often a parent, rebbi, or teacher’s attitude can make all the difference. In one class the student can be a serious behavior problem, while in another class, with a different teacher, he will be a top student and cause no trouble whatsoever. One may never know how a particular child’s brain ticks, what closes it and what opens it. While there are general rules, there are also exceptions to the rules, and often we must experiment and see what works best. But in all too many cases, banning things without providing for a proper alternative may boomerang. Therefore, before resorting to it, we must make sure we have tried all other options, and also make sure that it will make things better and not worse. Just because one may slip on a banana peel is no reason to ban the banana. So let’s remember “Derocheho darchai noam v’chol nesivoseha shalom.”
Actually, I’m considering banning my next tape - because they say that when you ban something, it sells much better. As the posuk says, “Mayim kenuvim yimtaku.”