Some people endured throughout childhood a dysfunctional representation of Heavenly chastisement or yirah (fear/reverence of God).
Others experienced punitive punishments by dysfunctional parents and/or teachers, and never having experienced punishment or yirah in a positive context, genuinely struggle to relate to these concepts in the healthy & beneficial way Judaism requires.
And as understandable as that resistance is, it's also a pity to miss out on one of the core fundamentals of Judaism.
What's Wrong with This Picture?
And at the time I was becoming frum, most people teaching about Torah Judaism skirted this issue (much to my relief & self-satisfaction).
My resistance was validated time & again as I heard how our generation cannot hear about Heavenly punishment & din & yirah, and so we should not speak about it; instead, the focus should ONLY be on Hashem's Love & on the feel-good aspects of Judaism.
This is partly true, of course. Love & the feel-good aspects should be the main focus.
But not the ONLY focus.
First of all, I couldn't help noticing that these supposedly "negative" or "scary" concepts infuse every part of Torah Judaism, whether the halachic works, Torah commentaries, mussar books, or—well, EVERYTHING.
I also encountered teachers & writers who explained these concepts in an authentic & positive way—which helped enormously.
Furthermore, upon encountering serious difficulties & yissurim in life, I discovered the feel-good-only side left me without the tools to gain insight into suffering or otherwise deal with suffering in a meaningful manner.
Finally, by acknowledging the din and yirah and punishment aspects of Hashem, one sees fairness & justice in an otherwise seemingly unfair world. (For some of us, this glimpse of justice is highly gratifying.)
So these seemingly "harsh" or "scary" or "negative" concepts can & SHOULD be used positively.
In fact, these seemingly repellent parts of Hashem actually derive from His Great Love for us.
Yes, these too are expressions of His Love (even when they feel like the direct opposite).
Depending on your personality & past experience, embracing this fact may be easier or excruciatingly harder.
But just because it presents a challenge (and for some people, an understandably mountainous challenge) doesn't mean such a fundamental part of Judaism should be ignored, denied, or disdained.
When It's Helpful to See Hashem's Justice in This World
Yes, thinking of the great reward in store for us when we stop ourselves is wonderful.
Knowing the great appreciation in Shamayim our self-restraint or ability to change direction in the middle of a challenging situation—these also help us so much toward doing the right thing.
Furthermore, while many people focus on fear of punishment for, say, not saying the right bracha, real-life examples show Hashem concerns Himself with punishing bein adam l'chavero (person-to-person) transgressions—like any kind of extreme ongoing pain caused to another.
It's true that we don't always see that in This World.
Sometimes, Hashem lets an awful person live it up in This World to reward that person now for any miniscule good performed—and then that awful person suffers for all their awfulness in the Next World (without our ability to witness it from here).
But we do see instances of justice meted out in This World.
When Hashem Doesn't Agree with Your Self-Perception of Funny, Cute, Clever, or Victimized
Once there was a girl – a young woman.
And she was riding in a taxicab in Brooklyn. And the taxicab bumped into another car. And together they bumped into a telephone pole.
And the pole fell on her and she died. Nebach, it killed that girl.
Now, I’m not capable of telling you anything but I’ll tell you something that happened with a girl. Maybe it was the same girl. I don’t want to say.
Once there was a poor teacher and she was trying to make a living. You know that it’s not always easy making a living.
So she was teaching a class of girls. And there were forty girls in the class.
One of the girls in the back of the class mimicked the teacher’s voice. And she did it all the time.
All the time!
And the teacher was very much embarrassed. Very embarrassed. Very hurt. But what could she do? It’s her parnasah.
So she kept quiet. She kept quiet but she was terribly hurt.
Now maybe this girl forgot about what she did. And maybe the teacher forgot about her pain.
But Hakodosh Boruch Hu doesn’t forget. He might give you time to fix your mistake – to do teshuvah – but when you don’t, and instead you forget about it, He doesn’t forget.
You hear that?! Hakodosh Boruch Hu doesn’t forget!
Here’s a girl in Bais Yaakov.
Her teacher, a woman trying to make a living, she teaches the girls. And she’s trying to make a lecture on a certain inyan in hashkafah.
So one of the girls raised her voice to mimic her teacher. “Mmmm mmmm.”
The teacher didn’t say anything. She heard but she didn’t say a thing.
A terrible thing what that girl did! Malbin pnei chaveiro berabim! A terrible thing.
Well that girl was sitting in a taxi one day and another car came and bumped into a telegraph pole and knocked it down and it fell on her taxi; a freak accident and she was killed.
Nobody knows why. Nobody knows why!
Hakadosh Baruch Hu knows why.
Lo avad dinah belo dinah – Hashem doesn’t do things without judgment.
And therefore mi haish hachafetz chaim, you want to live long?
Netzor leshoncha meira – close your mouth against saying bad things.
Yiras Hashem tosef yamim – if you fear Hashem it will add to your years, ushenos reshaim tektzornah – while the lives of the wicked are cut short.
They like to go on with tons of excuses like:
- tinok sheh nishba
- "teen brain"
- having a difficult home life
- he/she didn't reeeeeally mean it...
- excusing theme with a disorder (for example, people—especially young people—with ADHD sometimes behave with giddy impulsion, insensitivity, and tactlessness)...
Or, if it's the perpetrator:
- imagining him/herself as the victim
- "just kidding!"
...and so on.
The question becomes whether Hashem agrees with these excuses.
Years of observation showed me that many—maybe most?—people who make nasty little barbs or humiliate others tend to consider themselves clever or cute or funny.
They don't consider their behavior truly wicked.
Even if they admit they did something mean, they categorize it as a "cute" kind of mean, or a meanness that's funny or clever.
And that their victim deserves it in some way.
Another huge percentage consider themselves a victim in some way.
Similar to the above, they feel their victim has it coming to them—the difference being they may not lighten it up with cute, clever, or funny, but outright anger instead.
The "I'm the victim here!" types can go either way.
(Note: People with a personality disorder (PD) almost always see themselves as the victim in a situation, regardless of how irrational that self-perception is.
And despite what most PD professionals will tell you, it's generally not consciously manipulative—sometimes it is, but often not. If it's usually consciously manipulative, then it's probably sociopathy, not a conventional personality disorder. But PDs genuinely see themselves as the victim.
That's how they allow themselves to be so abusive. To them, it's noble self-defense.)
Back to Rav Miller's example above: Do you think the mocking student considered herself a bad person?
In my experience, highly unlikely.
She most likely considered herself clever & funny, plus she probably thought the teacher deserved it for being "pathetic" (to the girl's mind) or not up-to-par in some way—which makes the class the victim of the teacher's incompetence (in the eyes of this particular girl, anyway).
The girl also probably thought she could get away with it because she's young, she's a teenager, blah, blah, blah.
I can't know for certain, of course, but according the situation described here, that's my experience with these types.
(Note: Having been a teen myself with teen peers, plus having raised & dealt with other teens, it's clear teens are aware of the ability to get away with certain behaviors simply because it's excused by society as "typical adolescent." The law also provides tremendous leeway for those under 18. And that attitude is considered normal & acceptable since the 70s-80s.)
So for some of us, it helps us to know that how ever funny, clever, cute, or victimized we may perceive ourselves, Hashem may not agree our humiliating or hurtful behavior is justified.
And that can help us rein it in.
(Please also note the rewarding & loving aspect of yirah: "it will ADD to you years"!)
A Bat Yisroel isn't Refundable
Here’s a man who died young; he got ill and died young.
A tragedy! A mystery!
But I know the answer to the mystery. I knew him.
When he was a bochur he got married. Right after the chasuna he said he wants a gett from the kallah.
I went to him; I tried to persuade him.
You’re just married,” I said. “You’re ruining her.” I tried. “Your parents put so much money into the chasuna.”
“I don’t like her,” he said.
You married her! Once you married you can’t say “I don’t like her.”
But no, he was an akshan. He was a stubborn fellow.
He was a good bochur, a good learner, but he had akshanus in him.
He wanted a girl that he liked and finished. And so he divorced her.
Now, when the time came and he became ill prematurely, nobody understood why. I think I know why. He passed away early.
Hashem’s judgment was on him.
Here’s a man – a beautiful man. A strong, tall man and a good learner. A tchachka he was. Something special – a real tachshit.
And then he became ill – a cripple. And he died young too. Nobody know why.
I also don’t know why.
But I have one hava-amina. I have a svarah for why he died young. I have a good svarah.
Because I dealt with him once.
He had a bride. He had a new kallah. And right after the chuppa he said he doesn’t want her anymore.
I visited him. I said, “How can it be? You’re ruining the girl! You chose her. You chose this girl. And her parents spent a small fortune on the chasuna. And right after the chuppa you don’t want her anymore?!”
“No,” he says. He doesn’t like her, he tells me.
Well, I didn’t win.
And there was a divorce. It was a tragedy.
And I think that it was a very big crime that he committed.
Nobody knows why, but I think that’s the reason. He ruined her.
Now, I wouldn’t go and publicize it, but I believe that’s the reason.
It's so callous & dehumanizing.
It's very humiliating & devastating for her—a public rejection of the most profoundly personal type.
You can't just do that to people & get away with it.
So yeah, he was likable & good guy and woo-woo, he was a real Torah-learner!
But being knowledgeable in Torah makes you MORE culpable.
Hashem expects more of you because you know better.
So despite everything...yes, being a jerk can get a person killed.
Here's similar one:
Here’s the case of a young man who died.
A big talmid chacham. And he died. And everybody is surprised.
He had a family with children. What did he do wrong that he was punished?
But I know! I remember!
He was once married – before this marriage – and he got into a quarrel immediately with his wife’s parents.
Something happened right after the marriage night. He became insulted and he went out of the house; he went back to his parents and he refused to come back to his wife anymore.
She was ruined. A young girl and now she’s being divorced.
It was a tragedy. She wanted to take her life! She wanted to commit suicide. A frum girl.
But he was adamant. He refused to go back.
Well, the years passed by.
He remarried but Hakodosh Boruch Hu didn’t forget it.
And suddenly this man became ill and died – there’s a reason for it.
Many of us influenced by secular Western society may not appreciate the severity of these infractions presented by Rav Miller.
But the more we train our brains to think like Hashem thinks, the more we understand the events around us.
What about the Power of Forgiveness?
So Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender addresses this issue in Words of Truth Volume II.
He expounded on the importance of not only remaining silent in the face of verbal attacks (rather than respond with an attack of your own), but to also completely forgive the verbal attacker.
At the same time, he noted that Hashem does not necessarily forgive the initial attacker.
According to Hashem's cheshbon, the person did something very wrong—regardless of how you, the victim, feel about it.
In the above examples, Rav Miller notes the teacher may have forgotten all about the humiliating interactions.
It could be that in the teacher's heart, the teacher even forgave the girl, excusing it as immaturity & not intentional cruelty.
It could also be that the former kallot from the above stories also decided to forgive their former chatan.
I don't know. Maybe not. But maybe yes.
Regardless, it can also be that Hashem refuses to forgive.
And in that case, He doesn't punish on the cheshbon of the victim, but for Hashem's own Sake.
A Good Scare is Better Than a Bad Move
...or when we wish to avenge/rectify perceived victimization.
Regardless of how light or justified our actions seem in our own eyes, if it hurts another person, the above examples show how important it is to think it through more deeply before acting.
Thinking about the positive results for good behavior help so much.
But sometimes, only a fear of the consequences provide us with the self-restraint necessary to overcome our yetzer hara.
And that's why some of us find these anecdotes so helpful.