What can we learn from a challenging mitzvah? Did we ever stone a rebellious child?

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
August 29, 2020

Parshat Ki Tetzei has many, many laws. With 74 mitzvot, it has more commandments listed than any other Torah reading of the year. We learn of many that are incredibly relevant in this moment--ensuring honesty in business, compassion to the less fortunate, and so many others. Over and over God’s love is emphasized, the connection between the people and Israel is reinforced. We also read some that seem less applicable today. The Torah limits military powers, putting careful guidelines around pillaging and concubines acquired through war. Thankfully modern military powers do not see pillaging as part of their mission!

One mitzvah that seems particularly foreign to us is a command regarding how to treat difficult children.  By looking at the text and commentaries upon it, we may find it more relevant than we imagined.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21
(18) If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, (19) his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. (20) They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” (21) Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid. www.sefaria.org

We might say this command is not relevant and simply ignore it, yet we learn much about rabbinic tradition and Jewish practice by doing a more careful analysis. The mystical commentary of the Zohar imagines Moshe arguing with Gd about these verses:

Upon being given this passage of the Torah, Moses asked G‑d how a Jewish father and mother could be expected to take their own son to the Supreme Court in order to have him executed? This whole passage should be deleted from the Torah! G‑d explained to him that it was included to enable us to receive a reward for studying it, though it would always remain only in the realm of hypothesis. (Zohar Balak 197b) https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/379685/jewish/The-Hypothetical-Defiant-Son.htm

The Zohar’s version accords with rabbinic tradition in the Mishnah and Talmud. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains how the Mishnah narrowed the case to make it impossible to prosecute:

The child must be within three months of attaining maturity (younger than that, he was still a minor; older, he was not still a child). He must have stolen money from his parents, used it to buy a specific measure of meat and Italian wine, eaten and drunk it in one go, in a place other than his parent’s house, and so on. ...R. Judah held that “If his mother is not like his father in voice, appearance and stature, he does not become a rebellious son. Why? Because the Torah states, He will not obey our voice, and since they must be alike in voice, they must be alike in appearance and stature also.” https://rabbisacks.org/ki-tetse-5767-stubborn-and-rebellious-sons/

Talmud Sanhedrin 71a teaches:
There has never been a stubborn and rebellious son and there will never be one in the future, as it is impossible to fulfill all the requirements that must be met in order to apply this halakha. And why, then, was the passage relating to a stubborn and rebellious son written in the Torah? So that you may expound upon new understandings of the Torah and receive reward for your learning, this being an aspect of the Torah that has only theoretical value. 

Rashi offers another perspective that may help us understand what we CAN learn from this.
The Torah commentator Rashi encourages people to read the story of the rebellious son together with the two sections of the Torah that immediately precede it: one dealing with a (male) soldier who claims a female captive in war and subsequently marries her, the next about a father who loves one son more than another. Together, Rashi says, the three sections tell a cautionary tale of a son who is conceived in a less-than-loving situation (by a soldier and a female captive), raised in a loveless environment (loved less than his brother), and as a result becomes rebellious and hateful, not knowing how to love.

Returning to the text itself, we see a painful, challenging situation. We have an incredibly dysfunctional family. The parents are speaking with different voices. They are in conflict. The children do not feel safe. The children do not feel loved.

Every family is complicated. Every family is challenging, yet our Torah shows that if we allow our families to get out of control, the consequences can be long-lasting. Our Torah teaches that parents must be involved in their children’s lives. It is not imagining helicopter or bulldozer parents in modern parlance, but parents who desire to raise children with good middot, good morals and characteristics.

As parents or grandparents, as guardians and protectors of the next generation, we are commanded to educate them. Our tradition teaches that a community must have a school and can even sell a Torah to pay a teacher to educate children, while also reminding parents that we are all obligated to write a Torah, obligated to study and teach Torah. Education includes science, math, literature, philosophy and Torah. All of this is Torah!

So why do we read of these terrible parents or terrible child? While the explanation that it is to encourage us to delve deeply into text resonates at times, there is more to it. In this difficult story, the parents go to the community at large. They say, “We have failed. Help!” While the methodology may be different today, we cannot be afraid to ask for help. In this moment especially, help is vital. Parents are drowning. They are being asked to be parents, teachers, productive members of society. It is a tremendous responsibility and sometimes burden. We must work together as a society to support one another! This lesson has been part of our tradition since time immemorial. That is the Divine love that Moshe speaks of.

I want to close with a story that some of you may have heard before. When I was a young rabbinical student I did a unit of clinical pastoral education, CPE at a hospital outside Atlanta. I was the first Jewish chaplain in the program. The language used was frequently Christian centered. One image that was regularly quoted was “to be Jesus in the room”. It took the full twelve weeks for me to understand. In our faith, we speak of walking in Gd’s ways; we speak of the Shechinah, Gd’s feminine and more imminent presence. When we support one another; when we help one another, we bring the image of the Divine to others. We are not God, but by doing Godly acts, deeds of lovingkindness, gemilut hasadim, we bring God and God’s light into this world.

The ben sorer umoreh is inviting us to bring God’s presence back. It is reminding us to be supportive of those around us. It is demanding that we not abandon those around us, but offer a (perhaps virtual) hand. I know that we have done that in this community and I pray it will always be so.

Note: I do not read my sermons. My delivered version is below. It can be found at 40 minutes and 16 seconds. (Fast forward to 40:16)