The Rebellious Son

Thursday, 4 September, 2014 - 3:13 pm

In what is perhaps the strangest section in the Torah about parenting, the Torah relates the law of the "wayward and rebellious son":

If a man has a wayward and rebellious son who does not obey his father or his mother, and they chasten him, and [he still] does not listen to them,

His father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place. And they shall say to the elders of his city, "This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; [he is] a glutton and a drunkard."

And all the men of his city shall pelt him with stones, and he shall die, and you shall eradicate the evil from amongst you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

The Rabbis of the Talmud understood that this law was not meant to actually be practiced; they explain that the criteria for the parents to be able to have the child killed are so high, it is virtually impossible for the law to be carried out. As the Talmud states:

Indeed, [a case of a "wayward and rebellious son"] never was, and never will be. So why was it written in the Torah? So that it should be studied and we should be rewarded [for studying it].

Perhaps we can suggest that by studying this section in the Torah we are rewarded with an important lesson in parenting

As parents we keep telling our children, and we pray that they take this message to heart, that we will always love them no matter what. That we will always be there for them. That no matter how far they stray, they can always return to our loving embrace. As parents we understand that for our children's psychological and spiritual well being, it is crucial that they internalize this message, and never doubt it for even one moment.

But there is another message, that while appearing to be similar to the first, is as destructive as the first is beneficial.

Sometimes, especially in affluent and privileged circles, a child picks up another message. Sometimes, the child hears mom and dad telling him or her, explicitly or implicitly: ‘no matter what you do we will bail you out’. The child believes, mistakenly or not, that he or she can get in trouble with the law, with friends, with teachers, with co-workers or even with a spouse, and mom and dad will be there to clean up the mess. The child, born into privilege, believes that he or she can be reckless because he or she will always get a second chance. The parents, who allowed the child to draw this conclusion, are doing this child a disservice. They may have good intentions, but they are destroying their child’s character.

So every night, as you tuck your child into bed, tell her that you’ll always love her. Tell her, that to her parents, she will always be the most important person in the universe. But, once a year, make sure she reads the section of the Torah about the wayward child. Make sure she hears about the child that strayed so far, that the parents are not willing or not able to clean up the mess.

Tuck her into bed, help her understand that she will always be loved, cherished, treasured, but help her understand that she won’t always be bailed out.   

Comments on: The Rebellious Son

Jill Yolen wrote...

Such a useful and meaningful application of a troublesome
passage. Made easy to understand by simple words. Lovingly done!