Parshat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel“If a man has a wayward and rebellious child, who does not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, and they warn and flog him, but he still does not obey them; then his parents may take him out to the judges of the city, telling them that ‘this our son is wayward and rebellious, he does not obey our voice, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Upon which all the people of the city pelt him with stones and he dies, so that you rout out the evil in your midst and all of Israel will take heed and be frightened. (Deuteronomy 21:18–21)

What defines a “wayward and rebellious” child? How is he to be punished? Whose fault is it – his, his parents’, or society’s?

This week’s Torah portion of Ki Tetze, and especially the Talmudic sages who comment on it, deal with the tragedy of such a problematic situation with amazing courage and sensitivity – and provide important directions for parenting, even today!

The words of the Bible itself, as quoted above, are rather stark, even jarring to the modern ear. However, our Written Torah is defined, expanded upon, and even limited by the Oral Torah and the sages of the Talmud (Sanhedrin, chapter 8, especially pages 68b-71), who initially take the approach that here is the case of a youngster who seems to be growing into a menacing, murderous monster. They limit the time period of the punishment to three months following the onset of puberty, insist that he must have stolen a large amount of meat and wine from his parents which he himself consumed, and conclude that “this youth is punished now for what will inevitably happen later on; it is better that he die [more or less] innocent rather than be put to death after having committed homicide.”

Despite these limitations, the case still seems rather extreme. Many modern commentaries argue that our Bible is actually limiting an ancient practice in which parents had unlimited authority over their children, even to the extent of putting their rebellious children to death, and here the waywardness is defined, the time span is limited, and the judges of the Sanhedrin must be brought into the situation. Nevertheless, the very axiom of “punishing now for what will inevitably happen later on” runs counter to everything else in our entire biblical and judicial system, and is even countermanded by a famous Midrash.

The Bible tells us that Sarah, the wife of Abraham, saw Ishmael, the son of Abraham’s mistress Hagar, “sporting (metzaĥek)”; she believes that he will be a bad influence on her son Isaac, and God agrees with her that the mistress and her son are to be banished into the desert. An angel sees them wandering and suffering, hungry and thirsty, and comforts Hagar: “Do not fear; God has heard the [crying] voice of the lad from where he is now” (Gen. 21:9–17). On these last biblical words, Rashi cites the Midrash which seems to defy the Talmudic position of the wayward child: 

“From where he is now” – He is judged in accord with his present actions and not for what he will eventually do. The angels in heaven began to prosecute [Ishmael] saying, “Master of the Universe, for someone whose children will eventually slay your children [the Israelites] with thirst, You are miraculously providing a well with water in the desert?!” And [God] responded “Now what is he, righteous or wicked?” They responded, “Righteous [in the sense that he was not yet worthy of capital punishment].” [God] answered, “In accordance with his present actions do I judge him, from where he is now.”

If God is thus explaining the foundations of Jewish jurisprudence, how do we begin to justify the previous Talmudic explanation of “punishment now for what will eventually happen”?

An anonymous source cited by the Talmud goes so far as to declare that “the case of a stubborn and rebellious son never existed and never will exist; the only reason for its inclusion is so that we may expound the verses and receive reward” (Sanhedrin 71a). And so, R. Yehuda explicates the biblical words, interpreting the Mishna to teach that “if the mother was not an appropriate spouse for the father, if the parents were not equal in voice and stature” – i.e. if they were pulling in different directions, with each expressing a different lifestyle and set of values – then we cannot condemn the emergent rebellious child. He is merely a product of the mixed and confusing messages, the existential identity crisis, he has received at home.

Moreover, “if one of the parents was without hands or legs, was mute, blind, or deaf, the young teenager cannot be blamed” (Sanhedrin 8:4). Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, spiritual leader of Manhattan’s prestigious Kehillath Jeshurun Synagogue and founder and principal of Ramaz Elementary and Secondary schools (1902–1979), would homiletically explain that parents must invest in their children, must be available for them to observe, to listen, and to informally convey. Despite the school that the child attends, the parent remains the primary educator. Hence if a parent lacks the hands to embrace and to admonish, the legs to accompany the child to where he/she wishes to go, the eyes to see what the teenager is doing, even when he thinks he’s not being observed, the ears to hear what he/she is thinking and planning and dreaming, the voice to enter into true dialogue of give-and-take, then the youngster cannot be blamed, no matter how obnoxious his actions may be. Parenting is an awesome responsibility and a full-time job, in which quantity of time is quality time. Just as babies do not relieve their bodily functions at predetermined times, youngsters cannot be expected to fit into parents’ busy schedules. It takes at least two parents to share the commitment, guidance, and sensitivity which parenting truly demands.

All of this leads to a ringing Talmudic declaration: “The case of the wayward and rebellious child never was and never will be. Expound the verses and you will receive reward” (Sanhedrin 71a). We must be aware of what tragedy can occur within the context of the family and try to prevent the tragedy by taking to heart, mind, and action the depth of the responsibility. After all, our children are our posterity, our future, and our eternity.

I would merely add a few words regarding Ishmael. There were many reasons for his exoneration by the Almighty. After all, Abraham and Hagar did not provide a unified standard of behavior and values; the two were certainly not fit for each other. Hagar and Ishmael were of lesser status than Sarah and Isaac. And Hagar was far removed from Abraham’s monotheism, compassionate righteousness, and moral justice. Moreover, Ishmael himself repents at the end of his life (Bava Batra 16b), and God apparently forgives him, since he makes him into a great nation with twelve princes emerging from his loins (Gen. 25:16).

Finally, the Mishna teaches that even if only one parent forgives the wayward and rebellious son, he is not to be punished (Mishna Sanhedrin 8:4). And our sages maintain that “there are three partners to every individual, the Holy One blessed be He, the father, and the mother” (Kiddushin 30b). Now if flesh and blood parents can prevent execution – in most instances, because they realize that they share the blame – our Divine Parent must certainly have the right to stay the execution. Only God knows that sometimes the genetic makeup of the child is of such a nature, or a traumatic event caused such a rupture in his personality, that neither he nor his flesh-and-blood parents can be held accountable. But whatever the case may be, it’s crucial that parents do everything they can to the best of their ability, to give their children the basic three things which every child deserves from his/her parents: lo
ve, limits, and personal and sensitive involvement in their development.


Shabbat Shalom!


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