This week's parashah, Ki Teizei, details many mitzvot, laws, and customs. Some of these topics attract discussion of moral dilemmas that are naturally controversial, such as the mitzvah to send away the mother bird before taking her young, and the various forms of Kilayim (forbidden plant and animal hybrids). Today we will take a more in depth look at the laws pertaining to the wayward and rebellious son (ben sorer umoreh).
A question many parents (and Mr. Swart) face is what to do with rebellious children? The Torah provides an answer which seems quite strict, even harsh, if read literally. We know, of course, that there are seventy ways of interpreting the Torah, and the written Torah laws are always read together with the oral laws (Mishnah and Talmud).
This parashah states that, "When a man has a son who is wayward and rebellious, who does not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, and they warn him, but he does not listen to them. His father and mother shall seize him and bring him to the elders of his town, to the gate of his place". They are to tell the elders that their son does not listen to them, and the men of the town must then stone him to death, "so shall you burn out the evil from your midst, and all of Israel shall hear and be in awe".
The punishment of death for a son who has acted rudely and rebelliously, is different to other Torah laws, where physical punishments are given only for very serious crimes. Troubled by this, the Rabbis sought explanation. One idea is that the rebellious son is not killed for what he has done, but for what he will likely end up doing; his current behavior shows that he will end up as a thief and killer. Better he should die now, than allow him to live and cause others to suffer.
Nonetheless, as the Torah is always merciful, the talmudic rabbis seek to ensure that this law cannot be used except in the rarest situations. This is not surprising, as a similar approach is adopted for any type of capital punishment, requiring two reliable witnesses and advance warning.
The Talmud interpreted the Torah verses about the rebellious son to generate a series of rules which almost guarantee that the law cannot be used. It is deemed a necessity for the son to steal and drink a specific amount of wine and food, and the law is applicable only up to three months after his bar mitzvah.
It is also required that the wayward son’s parents must speak with the same voice, look the same, and be the same height, seemingly impossible conditions.
Some commentators suggest that the law of the wayward son was written in the Torah only to give us the opportunity to benefit by learning from it as a theoretical concept.
I would suggest that this law can be read as a lesson on perfection. As parents and as children, we are meant to strive for unison, and the perfection and moral clarity it will bring, while realizing that we will never reach it. As long as we know that we are not the products of some perfection, but, rather, that we see, hear and experience a complicated mix of messages, we will not make the deadly demand of perfection from anyone.
Dan, Grade 12