In his Kuntras HaBechirah, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler makes a truly frightening statement. No matter how elevated one’s actions, if those actions are only the result of one’s training, then they confer no merit upon the one performing them. Only those actions that result from the exercise of one’s free will are attributed to a person.
That which we do as a form of imitation of our role models or as a result of some form of coercion is not truly ours. One only can only lay claim to those mitzvos to which one brings something of oneself – some thought, some feeling while performing the mitzvah.
Rav Dessler taught that we define ourselves only through the exercise of our free will. And that only takes place when there is an aspect of internal struggle. That struggle is the opposite of rote behaviour – mitzvos anoshim m’limuda.
Our very relationship with Hashem depends on the exercise of our bechirah. Any true relationship must be based on the individuality of both parties – on what is intrinsic to them and not compelled by circumstances beyond their control. And that process of self-definition requires the exercise of our bechirah.
With this insight, we can understand a puzzling Rashi. The Torah tells us that Yitzchak Avinu and Rivka Imeinu stood opposite one another – each davening for a child. Hashem answered Yitzchak (and by implication not Rivka) (Bereishis 25:21). Rashi explains that Yitzchak’s prayer was answered because his merit as a tzaddik who was the son of a tzaddik was greater than that of Rivka, a tzadekes who was the daughter of a rasha.
Most of us experience a certain puzzlement upon first confronting this Rashi. After all, isn’t it more meritorious for Rivka to have formed herself into tzadekes, despite having no models to emulate? One possible answer is that we do not fully appreciate what it means that Yitzchak was a tzaddik.
Yitzchak was the son of Avraham Avinu, the greatest man who had ever lived, the one who discovered Hashem through the power of his own reason, and proclaimed His existence to the world. With such an overwhelming image in front of him, the natural thing would have been for Yitzchak to emulate his father’s derech avodah (path of Divine service). Had he done so, however, Yitzchak Avinu might have been an exemplary person, but he would not have merited the title tzaddik.
Only by adding an entirely new aspect of avodas Hashem to that of Avraham Avinu did Yitzchak merit to be called a tzaddik. Despite the power of the parental example in front of him, Yitzchak initiated an entirely new aspect of Divine service – gevurah ¬– and added it to the chesed of Avraham. Even when performing the same external actions – e.g.., redigging the same wells that his father had dug previously – Yitzchak made those actions his. And that achievement, Rashi informs us, is even greater than Rivka’s ability to escape the negative example of her father Bethuel.
IN ADDITION TO THE IMPLICATIONS OF RAV DESSLER’S INSIGHT for our own avodas Hashem , it relates to each of us in our roles as parents and educators. In those roles, our success will be determined not just by our children’s conformity to halachic norms, but by the degree to which we inspire them and provide them with the tools to make their mitzvah observance something more than mitzvos anoshim m’limuda.
To coerce our children, either negatively through punishment or positively through praise and rewards, is relatively easy at an early age. And for young children, it is perfectly valid, even necessary, to accustom them to the performance of mitzvos. At an early age, the child can understand little of the deeper significance of a mitzvah or why it is incumbent upon him to perform the mitzvah.
Yet while various forms of coercion have a place within a proper program of chinuch , coercion should never be confused with chinuch itself. Indeed it can be antithetical to true chinuch, which involves the development of a person’s own understanding and capacities from within, not the imposition of patterns of behavior from without.
I recently read an interview with Rabbi Moshe Goldstein, Rosh Yeshivas Sha’arei Yosher and widely considered Israel’s foremost expert on yeshiva students who have experienced spiritual crises, in which he emphasized this distinction between coercion and chinuch. “The goal of chinuch, ” he said, “is to cause the child to perform because he understands why he is do what he’s doing. Proper chinuch has as its goal that the child will do what is incumbent upon him from his own free will. . . . [That process of internalization] requires explanation, dialogue, and influence.”
Rabbi Goldstein makes the striking point when a child’s behavior is consistently perfect, and his parents find themselves the envy of other parents, this can often be a warning sign of dangers ahead. Such perfect behavior often reflects a pattern of behavior imposed from without. When a young person’s mitzvah observance it internally generated, and results from his or her own personal struggles, it will not be perfectly consistent because in that internal struggle there will inevitably be ups and downs.
But what is imposed from without triggers an impulse to rebel. The external behavior may remain perfect on the outside, especially in the presence of the coercive agent, while internally everything is fraying, until one day the whole structure collapses.
Chinuch is a long, slow process. Its results are cumulative, and rarely evident immediately. By its very nature, it must be individualized to each particular child. Coercion, on the other hand, has an immediate impact. But the benefits of proper chinuch are long-lasting, while those of coercion can vanish into thin air.
Yet the temptation to focus exclusively on coercion remains strong precisely because it yields immediate results and is easier than providing inspiration. Our educational institutions lack the resources to provide each student individual attention and thus tend to emphasize conformity to norms – too often without proper explanation of their significance. Every yeshiva, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, once said, is to some extent a Sdom bed, cutting or stretching talmidim to a certain standard.
The temptation of the quicker and easier path must be resisted. That requires constantly stressing that the goal of chinuch is provide our children with the internal resources to exercise their free will properly in order that their mitzvos be truly theirs and not ours.
Only by doing so can we be confident of their long-term adherence to the proper path. As the wisest of men taught us, “Educate the youth according to his way, so that even as he grows old he will not swerve from it”
This article appeared in Mishpacha Magazine on August 29, 2007.