The Torah in Parashat Naso (5:11-31) discusses the procedure to be followed in the case of a sota – a woman suspected by her husband of infidelity. If the husband had warned the wife not to seclude with the suspected adulterer, and she was seen violating this warning, she is considered a sota, and marital relations are forbidden with her husband until she undergoes the process described by the Torah. The woman is brought to the Beit Ha-mikdash and made to drink special water which would determine her guilt or innocence. The water would kill the woman if she was guilty of an adulterous act, and if she survived, the husband would be assured that his wife did not commit adultery, and they may resume marital life.
The Mishna in Masekhet Sota (7a) describes how, before the ritual, the woman would be brought before the judges of the Sanhedrin, who would try to persuade her to confess if she was guilty, in order to avoid the deadly consequences of proceeding with the sota ritual. The judges would tell her that factors such as wine, frivolity and negative peer influence can often lead a person to sin. The Mishna adds that the judges also told the woman “things that she is not worthy of hearing” – which Rashi explains as referring to stories of righteous figures in Tanakh who committed grave sins and repented. The woman was told all this so that she would be encouraged to confess and repent.
Rav Henoch Lebowitz, in Chiddushei Ha-leiv, notes the significance of the fact that the judges would try to persuade the woman to confess specifically by downplaying the severity of her alleged sin. Intuitively, we might have assumed that if they wanted the woman to regret her actions and repent, they should emphasize the gravity of her offense, for which she must feel and express guilt. But the judges did just the opposite, showing that they understood the temptations and lures that can lead one to wrongful conduct, and assuring the woman that even great people have made similar mistakes. The reason, Rav Lebowitz explains, is because the more the gravity of a person’s sin is emphasized, the more shame the violator feels – making it more difficult to confess and accept responsibility. If we want to encourage a wrongdoer to admit his or her wrongdoing and resolve to improve, we need to lessen the shame by showing sensitivity and understanding to the numerous factors that often lead to improper conduct.
Rav Lebowitz applies this principle to education, and to the proper approach to discipline and responding to misbehavior. Parents and educators instinctively feel the need to magnify as much as possible the severity of the misdeed, to impress upon the child how wrong the act is, so that it would not be repeated. The judges’ words to the sota, however, perhaps show us that the more effective response is to do just the opposite, to express to the child an understanding of what led him or her to commit the wrongful act – of course, without justifying the action. Rather than overwhelming the child with feelings of shame and guilt that discourage him or her from making an effort to improve, we should instead encourage the child by noting that mistakes are understandable, and that the child is still capable of achieving greatness. Downplaying the wrongfulness of the action, though counterintuitive, has the effect of conveying the message that the child acted incorrectly but is still an inherently good person with a great deal of potential and promise, thereby increasing the likelihood of positive change.