Torah Lights on Ki Tetsei: Parenting

Torah thoughts on the weekly portion from the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Gush Etzion, in the Judean Hills.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin,

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? Whose fault is it – his, his parents’, or society’s? This week’s Torah portion deals with these questions with amazing courage and sensitivity –providing important directions for parenting.

The words of the Bible are stark, and even jarring to the modern ear: The Talmud (Sanhedrin 68b – 71a) contends that here is a youngster who is growing into a menacing murderous, monster. They limit the time period of this case to three months following the onset of puberty, they 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.”

Modern commentaries argue that ancient societies gave parents unlimited authority over their children to the extent of putting their rebellious children to death. Our Torah defines waywardness, limits the time span, and insists that judges be involved in the final decision. Nevertheless, the axiom of “punishing now for what will inevitably happen later” runs counter to judicial system, and is even countermanded by a famous midrash.

The Bible tells us that Abraham's wife Sarah saw that Ishmael, the son of Abraham’s mistress Hagar, was a bad influence on her son, Isaac; G-d agrees that both the mistress and her son should be banished into the desert. An angel who sees them wandering and suffering, hungry and thirsty, comforts Hagar: “Do not fear; G-d has heard the (crying) voice of the lad from where he is now” (Genesis 21:9-17). On these words, "from where he is now," Rashi cites the midrash which seems to defy the Talmudic position of the wayward child:

"He is judged in accordance 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 (G-d) responded, ‘What is he now, righteous or wicked?’

"They responded, “Righteous’ (in the sense that he was not yet worthy of capital punishment). (G-d) answered, ‘I judge him in accordance with his present actions. I judge him from where he is now.’”

If G-d is explaining the foundations of Jewish jurisprudence, how do we explain the previous Talmudic explanation of “punishment now for what will eventually happen”?

Based upon a very literal interpretation of the verses, the Talmud sets many more limitations upon the case of the rebellious child. The parents must have all their limbs, and full ability of hearing and seeing in order to punish the youth (after all, they “take him” with their hands, “to the judges,” with their legs, claim “he does not obey our voice,” so they cannot be mute, etc.).

I interpret this as the necessary parental hands to embrace as well as to chastise, the necessary parental legs to accompany him to places of learning, inspiration and fun as he was growing up, the necessary parental ears to hear his dreams, fears and frustrations and the necessary parental eyes to see what he’s doing, what he’s not doing, and whom he is befriending.

Children deserve to receive time and attention from parents – and quantity time is the real definition of quality time! If parents are not personally and significantly involved in the development of their child, then, according to the Talmud, the child cannot be blamed, or punished, for becoming wayward or rebellious.

Moreover, the parents must be “equal in voice, appearance and stature”: they must provide a single message of values and life-style, and they must act in concert and harmony in providing a unified household. Father and mother must be “fit for each other” – otherwise, mixed parental messages and models will also remove culpable guilt from the child. Finally, if either of the parents demurs, expressing unwillingness to bestow such a punishment, the punishment is not executed.

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.” (B.T. Sanhedrin 71a). Apparently, the limitations were so great that they obviated the possibility of ever actually executing the punishment.

Nevertheless, parents have much to learn about the seriousness of parenting by taking to heart, mind and action the rabbinic explication of the verses.

I would merely add a few words regarding Ishmael. There were many reasons for his expiation by the Almighty: after all, Abraham and Hagar were not suited for each other and did not provide unified standards of behavior and values. Ishmael himself repents at the end of his life and it is G-d who ultimately forgives him.

If flesh-and-blood parents can prevent execution, then our Divine Parent must certainly have the right to stay an execution. Only G-d knows that sometimes the genetic make-up 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 to be culpable.

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: love, limits and personal involvement.

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