The three weeks between the fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av is a time of mourning for the Jewish people. These days recall the calamities that befell us during this time — exile from the land of Israel, destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. It is referred to as Bein Ha-Metzarim, a time when the Jewish people are “Between the Straits.”
The Shulchan Aruch brings down a curious custom for the Three Weeks: teachers should not strike their students during this time. Not that teachers are encouraged to hit students during the rest of the year; but during these Three Weeks, they should be especially careful to avoid punishing students. This custom is apparently the source for Rav Kook’s dictum for the month of Tammuz:
“The nation is redeemed from ‘Between the Straits’ [the Three Weeks] through teachers who are armed with spiritual might, who do not require a beating rod.”
Rav Kook took a curious custom and transformed it into something much greater — a motto for how we must educate in an era of national rebirth. This generation cannot be subdued with rods; it cannot be coerced with threats of punishment in this world or the next. We can only reach them, Rav Kook taught, with love and spiritual greatness. A generation in spiritual distress — “between the straits” — must be inspired by teachers who are armed with broad spirits and lofty vision.
Rav Kook thought deeply about the widespread rejection of religion and traditional Jewish norms that took place in his day. Unlike the prevalent outlook of other rabbis, who attributed the phenomenon of secularization to hedonism and a lack of integrity, Rav Kook viewed matters in a radically different way. He presented his analysis in one of his most important essays, entitled Ma’amar HaDor (“The Generation”). There he wrote:
“Our generation is an amazing, wondrous phenomenon. It is difficult to find a similar instance in all of our history — a generation composed of contradictions, a mixture of light and darkness.
It is precisely the nation’s greatness that has brought about its spiritual decline. This generation finds that all it hears and sees from parents and teachers is beneath it. The morals [of the previous generation] fail to capture their hearts and quench their thirst. They fail to instill fear and trepidation. This generation has already risen beyond the stage when one runs away due to fear, real or imagined, physical or spiritual.
Great persecutions and upheavals have made them tough and intrepid. Fear and threats cannot move them. They will only rise and follow a path of life which is lofty and enlightened. Even if they wanted to, they cannot be bowed and bent, saddled with burdens and yokes... They cannot be motivated to return [to traditional Judaism] through fear. But they are very much capable of returning through love — a love bound to lofty awe.... A great-spirited generation seeks, and must seek, in every direction that it turns, great ideals.
This is not a generation of pettiness, but one of greatness and high ideals. The only way to reach out to such a generation is through spiritual greatness.”
A careful analysis of the wording in Rav Kook’s adage reveals an additional insight. The phrase “beating rod” does not appear in the legal code of the Shulchan Aruch. Rather, this phrase comes from a Talmudic statement in Sanhedrin 24a, where the Sages contrasted the Torah scholars of the Land of Israel with those living in Babylon.
The Babylonian scholars were sharp and caustic in their legal debates. Their method of Torah study was often like a “beating rod” — sharp and unpleasant.
The scholars of Eretz Yisrael, on the other hand, would gently correct one another. Their gracious method of study was characterized as one of noam, pleasantness and mutual respect.
In short, a successful educational approach for this unique era of redemption must embrace two qualities:
(Adapted from Mo'adei HaRe’iyah, p. 533)
Illustration image: Children learning in cheder in Poland, 1924