As we continue our annual Torah reading cycle through the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth of the five books of the Torah, we look ahead toward Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, holidays that are quickly approaching on time’s horizon. This week’s parashah, Ki Teitzei, contains a collection of miscellaneous laws – as if the Torah is reminding us of these last important things before the Book of Deuteronomy concludes, before we begin our Torah reading cycle anew.
One of these laws, the instruction on what to do with a rebellious child, has challenged scholars throughout the centuries, and has particular significance for us: a community of grown-up rebellious children who have made t’shuvah; who have gone through dark times and made our way back to a righteous path.
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, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of the community. 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.” 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 (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
You read it right – the Torah is telling us that children who do not respond to their parents’ discipline should be publicly shamed and executed, as an example to the community of what not to do.
Thankfully, the Rabbis of the Talmud were unwilling to take this commandment at face value. They saw how problematic it was and reinterpreted it. On the one hand, they knew it didn’t work; on the other, they were unwilling to discard any of the Torah’s commandments. For the Rabbis, it was time to get creative.
One interpretation (Talmud Sanhedrin 71b) attempts to explain the severity of this punishment.
A wayward and defiant son is judged on account of his ultimate end; it is better that he should die innocent, and not after he becomes guilty.
This view claims it is ultimately best for the child and best for the world that the child be executed before his gluttonous and drunken ways escalate to theft, assault, and murder – for, in this view, more serious crimes are undoubtedly part of this child’s future.
Another more popular interpretation (Talmud Sanhedrin 71a) interprets the words of the Torah very narrowly – the child must be a certain age, neither too old nor too young; the parents must be identical in height, appearance, and voice. With this exceedingly narrow interpretation of the conditions required, the Talmud claims that there never has been a child who has actually fit the precise definition of a “wayward and defiant son,” and further, that there will never be any such child who ever fits this precise definition. Thus, the only reason this commandment exists is for us to interpret and study it; it has no practical value.
For us, in our community of recovery, we can see that both of these interpretations are flawed. To judge a child – or a person of any age – on the basis of how their behavior might progress is to claim both that we can predict the future and that the person will never make t’shuvah. And to explain away the existence of a rebellious child, claiming that rebellious children don’t even exist in our community, is to erase the existence of those among us who struggle, to be in denial of the pain behind the wrongful behavior of the rebellious children whom we know personally.
Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah speaks in language that humans can hear; the Torah instructs us about rebellious and drunken children because they do indeed exist – in fact, these children are us. Yet we know, for us today, that the Torah’s instruction is wrong, and indeed, that it won’t work.
Here at Beit T’Shuvah, we have a different answer. We care for the rebellious child within. First we provide a home – shelter that is clean and safe, food that is plentiful and nutritious, and community that has room for all of us to belong. Then we care for the mind and the soul, providing education on a different way of life: a life in recovery, a new way to connect spiritually, and a path towards finding our passion and discovering our purpose. Here we do not deny the painful and destructive consequences of a rebellious past; we recognize that t’shuvah can change our relationship to our past and help us find new meaning in our present. Here we have no need to predict the future of any of our residents; we believe in the power of t’shuvah, and we have faith that the future is bright.
As we celebrate this Shabbat together, may we all be blessed to hold and comfort the rebellious children in our lives, and within ourselves. May we come together in community, finding shelter in our companionship. And may we all feel a part of; may we all know, deep within our heart and soul, that we belong.