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August 20, 2010 6:11 pm

Ki Teitzei: Why Children Rebel

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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Two phases

In a military class the professor asked the students, “What is the difference between an engagement and a battle?”

No one in the group offered any answer. The professor was frustrated. “Didn’t anyone read the material in the book?” he thundered.

Finally, one guy said that he knew the answer.

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“An engagement is the thing that came before marriage,” he said, “while the battle is what followed it.”

The fight

It is a daring Kabbalistic story, and its origin is in the foundational text of Kabbalah, the Zohar.

It tells of a moment when Moses argued with G-d over a particular Torah law. The five books of the Pentateuch were dictated by G-d to Moses, who then transcribed them. This explains the endless and infinite layers of meaning contained in each word, law and episode of the Bible, reflecting the endless and infinite “mind” of their author.

Yet, says the Zohar, at a particular point, G-d dictated a law to Moses, and Moses refused to transcribe it into the Torah.

It was the profoundly painful law recorded in this week’s Torah portion. It reads like this:

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, and does not listen to them when they discipline him; then his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He does not obey our voice. He is a profligate and a drunkard.’

“Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.”

“G-d says to Moses,” the Zohar recounts, “‘write!’ To which Moses responds: ‘Master of the universe! Leave this out. Will there ever be a father who would do this to his son?!'”

“G-d tells Moses, ‘I understand your view, yet you should still write it and you will be rewarded. You know , but I know more.’ Moses would still not budge. He cannot accept this seemingly senseless and horrible law.

Only after G-d shows Moses the deeper mystical interpretation of this Torah law, as it describes the dramatic history of the Jewish people, does Moses acquiesce. He transcribes the law into the biblical text. Only after learning that this law was attempting to convey mystical, rather than literal, truths does Moses find comfort with this mandate.

Impossible conditions

Interestingly, these sentiments of Moses are echoed centuries later by the Talmudic sages living in the second century CE. The harshness of the law led these sages to conclude that “there never was nor ever will be a stubborn and rebellious son,” i.e. this Torah law was a matter of theory rather than practice.

In fact, the rabbis derive from the biblical text so many conditions that were required for this law to be enacted, that its practical application was an impossibility.

To cite just a few examples: Both parents must consent to have their son declared as a “stubborn and rebellious son” and receive the death penalty. The boy must be within three months of his bar mitzvah in order to receive this penalty, not a day younger or older (younger than that, he was still a minor; older, he was not a child). He must have stolen money from his parents, used it to buy a tremendous amount of meat and Italian wine, eaten and drunk it in one go, in a place other than his parents’ house, and so on.

This is not enough. For the law to be applied, the Talmud states, both parents need to have identical voices, a similar appearance and profess equal height. Since it is virtually impossible to have all of these conditions in place (unless the father and mother were twin siblings, which would prohibit them from marrying each other anyhow), this particular Torah law could never be applied in the real word.

Why then was it written? The sages answer, “So that we should expound the law and receive reward.” What the Talmud seems to be suggesting is that expounding this law in depth will be rewarding for parents; it would enrich parenting and educational skills.

Indeed, when we focus on these verses, we can deduce extensive psychological, emotional and practical guidance on the goals and methods of a moral education. Today, I wish to focus on one aspect.

How many voices in your home?

As usual in biblical study, a discrepancy in the text intimates deeper meanings. This text too, contains such a discrepancy.

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey the voice of his father and the voice of his mother,” is how the case is introduced in the Bible.  His parents are described as having two distinct voices: “the voice of his father and the voice of his mother.” Yet later on, when the parents bring their son to court to mete out the penalty, we encounter a slight, but meaningful, variance: “They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He does not obey our voice.” No more “the voice of his father and the voice of his mother.” Now it has become “our voice.” Their distinct voices merged into one.

What is the meaning behind this subtle textual change?

The message, it has been suggested, is critical in education. The phrase “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey the voice of his father and the voice of his mother,” hints to one possible reason for this son becoming stubborn and rebellious. In his home there was not one voice, but two distinct and dichotomized voices. The voice of the father was not the voice of the mother. Each of them went his or her own way. The parents never managed to merge their distinct “voices” to create a unified and integrated vision for themselves and their children. Each of the parents was pulling the home in a different direction, and the poor children were left stuck in the middle, torn by the discord of people they love so dearly.

And if this were indeed the case, this child is not rebellious and stubborn at all.  He is a victim of his parents’ stubborn refusal to work on their emotions and discover peace in their fragmented home. The child need not suffer the consequences for his parents unreadiness to confront their egos and their demons, and build an ambiance of mutual respect and harmony. They may or may not have good reasons for their strife, but the child ought not to be blamed for responding to their wars with stubbornness and rebelliousness. What else do you expect of him?

Of course, even if you did not grow up in an idyllic and loving home, you are accountable for your actions. A human being could overcome his or her past. Yet you can’t call this child “stubborn and rebellious.”

If we are going to punish this child, we must be sure that his disposition is indeed corrupt from within. Thus, in the continuation of the incident, the Torah states, “They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He does not obey our voice.” To determine that this child has embarked on an irrevocable path to disaster (which is, according to the sages, the reason the Torah imposes such a horrific punishment on him), we must ensure that the parents spoke in one voice, that the home was filled with serenity and human dignity. If not, if two voices resided in the home  filled with divisiveness and resentment, the blame ought to be placed on the parents, not on the child. Since his distortion is due to his parent’s discord, the path of healing is open to the boy.

Mutual respect

This may be the deeper meaning behind the Talmud’s statement that for this law to be applied, the parents must share identical voices, a similar height and a close resemblance to each other. Only if the voices in this child’s life have been integrated by parents who shared an identical value system in life; only when this child observed a father and mother whose spiritual heights were similar; only a child who saw both of his parents projecting a similar vision of themselves, only in such a case may we perhaps conclude that this child, who has demonstrated terrible and destructive inclinations, is turning into a monster. His future may be hopeless.

Since these conditions are virtually impossible, for no parents can be perfect, the Talmud is suggesting that we never have the right to proclaim any child as “stubborn and rebellious,” even if we observe in him destructive patterns. The child may be responding, consciously or subconsciously, to the stress and turmoil in his parents’ lives.

Parents are not, nor do they need to be, perfect. Yet, as long as we work toward transforming our distinct voices into a single voice, as long as we learn to truly respect the otherness of our spouse and create together a loving ambiance in our homes, we are likely to raise children who will lovingly embrace the morals and values their parents hold dear.

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