This week’s parsha contains more mitzvot than any other in the Torah. Whilst many of these commandments are well known and easy to comprehend others leave us with many questions. One example of this is the strange situation and ensuing requirement named the “ben sorer umoreh – the rebellious son”.
The Torah tells us that a child who is deemed to be a ben sorer umoreh by his parents is brought by them to the elders of the city who then, after a short clarification, order the son to be stoned by the members of the city. (The exact wording is found in Devarim 21:18-21.)
What renders a child or teenager so wicked that he deserves death. Surely all youth go through a rebellious stage; this would seem to be an extreme case of such. We could understand convening a panel of experts, therapists, psychologists and the like to deal with this problem but why put this youth to death? We know of various statements by chazal stating that we are punishable only from age twenty, yet here we are told by our sages that we are specifically dealing with someone below that age.
The Torah describes this son or child as “sorer umoreh”. Rashi explains this dual phraseology to refer to the fact that he is “sar min haderech” – turns from the (religious) path and on the other hand “mesarev bedivrei aviv” – refuses to accept the words of his father. This implies that he has rebelled against the two primary sources of authority in his life, Hashem and his parents. A similar idea is found in the words of Ibn Ezra. This notion is confirmed by the statement made by the parents on bringing their child to the Bet Din – “our son is a sorer umoreh, he does not listen to our voice, he is a zolel vesoveh”. If the first part clarifies the youth’s rebellion against his parents, the statement “zolel vesoveh” would have to refer to the actions which deem him as acting against God. According to the Gemara in Sanhedrin this phrase means that he steals and eats an enormous amount of meat and drinks a large amount of wine. In other words he is a thief, glutton and alcoholic. Again, these are not particularly pleasant traits but would seem to be cause to put the kid in a juvenile rehabilitation center rather than his grave!
Ramban elaborates on the sin of the sorer umoreh allowing us a different perspective on the situation. Citing two previous statements of the Torah, “Kedoshim Tiheyu”, the commandment to be holy and “oto ta’avodu uvo tidbakun”, the requirement to serve Hashem and cling to Him, Ramban explains that the ben sorer umoreh has demonstrated himself to be incapable of fulfilling these commands. In these verses, the Torah demands of us to “know” Hashem in all aspects of our lives; to lead our lives with a sense of the image of God in which we were created. A person who is a “zolel vesoveh” or a thief glutton and alcoholic as we somewhat freely translated this phrased based on the Gemara, is not keeping to these demands of the Torah. This helps us understand a little more about the Torah’s attitude towards this rebellious son. [It is clear that the opinion of Ramban is based on his understanding of “kedoshim tiheyu” outlined in his commentary to that verse.]
Let us return to Rashi. He states, again based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin, that the ben sorer umoreh is killed because of what he will become. Eventually he will waste all of his father’s money which will drive him to become an armed bandit and robber in order to sustain himself and finance his needs. The Torah, predicting this, prefers him to be killed while still holding some merit rather than wait until he is found guilty and judged for his (future) grave sins. This too, is very difficult to comprehend. Is society giving up on this kid? Are we saying that there is no way to bring him round, nothing that can be done to coach him back to the regular way of life?
As opposed to the line taken by chazal which we have quoted above, several mefarshim suggest that the stringent attitude towards the ben sorer umoreh stems from a different concern. An example of these is Abarbanel, who states that in addition to rebelling, the sorer umoreh is causing others to sin. If we adopt this approach, his punishment is a little easier to understand. He is put to death because of the negative effect he is having on other members of the community. It may be that he does not deserve to die for his own sins as an individual but the damage he is causing to those around him is simply to dangerous to harbor, and as a result, he must be killed.
We could suggest that the approach of Abarbanel may shed light on the entire episode without negating the statements of chazal. We are familiar with the comment of chazal that there was never a case of ben sorer umoreh and the entire scenario was only recorded in the Torah in order that we may learn it and thus receive due reward. As attractive as this justification for the parsha may be, as the Kli Yakar states we are still required to investigate why the Torah would include a passage and a commandment which has no bearing on reality. Kli Yakar, answers this question in dealing with a further point. The passage concludes with the words “vechol Yisrael yishmeu viyirau – all of Israel will hear and be afraid”. What is the significance of this phrase? Kli Yakar explains that the parsha of the ben sorer umoreh is read and learned so that the youth will take heed and be fully aware of what could happen to one who rebels in such an extreme way. He goes on to explain that in other cases where a similar phrase is employed, the Torah adds “velo yizidun od – they shall not continue to sin”. This addition is irrelevant here as the sin was never committed; the entire parsha is just a severe warning.
If we adopt the line of the Kli Yakar which he develops in the next section of his commentary, this warning is not merely for the youth. It is for all of Am Yisrael. The story of the ben sorer umoreh enjoins us to look carefully at the potential of our actions and that of our children. If we do not attend to ourselves and our children in good time and in the correct fashion, the results could be disastrous. Chazal explain the punishment of the Torah here as a prediction of the future depths to which this lad could sink. Abarbanel states that there is concern for the potential damage to the community. In a similar way, we must are required to heed the words of the Torah in this parsha. We must predict the future as best we can, we must concern ourselves with the possible outcome and potential of our actions and that of our children both good and bad. And we must act accordingly so that our society will emulate the Tzelem Elokim in which we are created.