Parshat Ki Teitze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)
Parshat Ki Teitze encompasses nearly every facet of halakha (Jewish Law), making it one of the most diverse portions in all of the Five Books of Moses. It mentions interpersonal mitzvot as well as those concerning a person’s relationship with God. The halakhot it covers span civil law, criminal law, and matters of personal status, and the text places a special emphasis on mitzvot tied to family life, such as the mitzvah of marriage, the option of divorce, and more.
One of the most bewildering mitzvot in the portion is the “ben sorer u’moreh”, a peculiar case involving a Bar Mitzvah-aged boy who wreaks havoc at home, and, as the Torah puts it, “does not heed the voice of his mother or the voice of his father” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 21:18).
His parents use corporal punishment to discipline him, but to no avail. Matters continue to deteriorate as the child steals meat and wine from his parents (in today’s world, he might take a few cans of beer, a bottle of Scotch, or the car keys). His parents warn him that he must mend his ways, but the child is unrepentant – he simply disregards them and does whatever fits his fancy.
At this point, his parents throw up their hands in desperation, turn to the courts and make a public declaration, saying, essentially: “We have given up. Our child is a glutton and a drunkard, he does nothing all day, and he is a constant embarrassment to us.” Then, the city elders instruct the people in their city to stone the child to death.
This is indeed a peculiar mitzvah. Capital punishment is a familiar concept in halakha, but it is usually imposed in cases of severe crimes such as murder and idol worship, not for theft. Stranger yet, in this case, the death penalty is given to a minor.
Our rabbis have contemplated this dilemma and explain that the Torah has fully understood what is happening in the young man’s head, arguing that someone who could steal from his parents as an adolescent would surely steal from others as an adult, and he would end up murdering, as well.
Therefore, better to nip this criminal in the bud while he’s still young. Simply put, the Torah requires us to take preemptive action by killing the child before he degenerates and commits heinous crimes with which society would struggle to cope.
This answer is far from satisfactory, since one key principle of halakha is that a person is always judged on the basis of actions he had already completed – not things he is prone to do in the future. This may be one of the constraints that led our rabbis to conclude that there never was a case of the rebellious son, there will never be one, and this entire episode was included in the Torah to teach us pedagogical principles through narrative, rather than instructing us to take specific action.
What ideas, then, can we glean from this tragic account of a young man who strayed from the right path? Seemingly, the most important question we should ask about this is what caused the boy to deteriorate to that extent. The Torah doesn’t state this explicitly, but some of our commentators tried to fish out the root cause of the issue through a close reading of the text.
The text summarizes the episode as follows: the young boy’s fault is that he “didn’t heed the voice of his father and the voice of his mother”. The word “voice” appears twice. Couldn’t the verse have sufficed with simply stating that the boy “did not heed the voice of his parents”? Could it be that the seeds of this calamity were sowed when the boy’s parents contradicted each other in front of him, sending him confusing messages? We all know that if a father raises his son to be an overachiever above all else, while his mother raises him to respect morals and values, or vice versa, these mixed messages may confuse him when he tries to set his priorities.
We can dig a bit deeper and listen to the chorus of voices our children hear. Isn’t this a recipe for confusion? If a child’s parents tell him one thing, which is diametrically opposed to what the child hears from his teachers, and when both of these clash with what the child absorbs from contemporary culture and the media, is it any wonder the child’s education is thrown off course?
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, of blessed memory, had a discussion once with a father whose children went astray, telling him that their decline was the direct outcome of his display of contempt for their teachers. The rabbi added that children can’t cope with this duality. They won’t listen and get educated as long as they are surrounded in an atmosphere of contempt.
The story of the “ben sorer umoreh” illustrates the need for a voice, the voice of an unambiguous pedagogical vision, which must be sounded by anyone who influences our children’s set of values. For education to succeed, we must do everything in our power so that our voice, as parents, reverberates with those of the educators in our school systems.
Furthermore, some believe that education begins and ends with school. The story of the “ben sorer umoreh”, along with our experience as parents, demonstrate that a person’s home and domestic educational environment has the strongest influence on his or her worldview. And within that home, the most important element is the harmony struck between two parents and their ability to speak in one voice.