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Parsha Ki Teitzei: The Job of a Parent

Most are aware of the Torah’s view of a child’s obligation to honor his or her parents as it’s part of the well-known Ten Commandments. But what does the Torah say about how to raise kids? There are aisles and aisles of books on “parenting” – a word coined by recent generations. Where is anything about parenting in the Torah? Right in this week’s parsha when it speaks of the Ben Sorer Umoreh, the Stubborn and Rebellious Child:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not listen to the voice of his mother or father, and (despite attempts to discipline him) he still does not listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him and take him to the elders of his city. They shall say to the city elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and does not listen to us – he is a glutton and drunkard.” All the men of the city shall pelt him with stones and he shall die.

There you have it, mums and dads, the simple and easy method of dealing with a difficult child. Take that teenaged brat to the city elders and have him done away with. No mess, no spills, the clean and easy formula for problem children!

Now I know some of you might be troubled by this passage, so I am here to help you with that. This is one of those parts of the Torah that demands an explanation and is impossible to understand without the assistance of the Oral Tradition. Just to remind you, much of this tradition was given to Moshe along with the Torah and later written down as the Talmud. It explains and fills in the blanks of the Written Torah – the Five Books of Moses – and helps us makes sense of these difficult passages. 

According to the Talmud this is an entirely fictitious and theoretical case. It says that, “The Stubborn and Rebellious Son mentioned in the Torah never happened, nor will it ever happen in the future.” Whew, that’s a relief. Jewish tradition is confident that it will never occur for indeed what parent would take their son to be done away with for acting stubborn, rebellious and eating and drinking too much? It then goes on to spell out the many restrictions that make it impossible for there to ever to be such a case.

Nevertheless, there must be some lessons to be gleaned since the Torah is not interested in presenting purely theoretical cases but is in fact a guidebook for living. And indeed in that selfsame part of that Talmud when the question is posed as to why the Torah even mentions this in the first place, it responds, “To learn and reap its reward”, the reward apparently being the lessons learnt about parenting. So here we go. 

Jewish tradition explains that this (non-existent) child is not put to death for the evil that he is presently doing – the excessive eating, drinking and the like – but על שם סופו al shem sofo, for what he will end up doing. Certainly nobody deserves capital punishment for eating or drinking in excess. Go to AA or OA, but the death penalty? That seems a bit harsh… and to a minor no less! No the Torah here is not giving a factual scenario but instead teaching the most important lesson about raising kids.

This child, if he should continue his negative habits, actions and lifestyle will become so addicted to them that he will eventually become a menace to society and a threat to those around him as he seeks more and more to support his addiction. Nobody is born evil. They become that way from a culmination of a myriad of lifestyle choices and steps that build and feed upon one another over time and progressively get worse in the course of many years. And that’s what is going on here; this is just the beginning of a downward slide. 

This being the case, Jewish tradition teaches that it is better to punish him now for the less severe crime of uncontrolled desires, than to allow him to spin out of control until he possibly commits the greater evil of resorting to murder to satisfy his addiction, as we sometimes hear about when some allow their addiction to completely overtake them. The reaction to the Stubborn and Rebellious Child is not based on his present actions but on his eventual ones.

Once again, this never happened nor will it ever, but it does teach us the most essential principle of parenting, and that is: Everything that we teach our children is not in reaction to the isolated behavior of the present, the here and now, but al shem sofo – for the long term effect of how it will shape and develop them later on in life.

If Billy takes something of his brother’s without permission, a parent may react in a very animated and exaggerated manner because mom or dad want to ensure that Billy will not exhibit this behavior again and make a habit of it. Taking other people’s things without their consent is called stealing. And while it’s somewhat innocuous now when he is six-years-old, if left alone and not addressed, it won’t be so innocent if he does this when he is sixteen-years-old or twenty six-years-old. 

This is precisely what discipline is all about. Everything we do when we raise our children is al shem sofo, for the sake of their future. “Eat healthy, work hard in school, don’t whine but fix the situation as best as you can, go to bed on time, take care of your toys and clean them up” – all of it is to ensure that the child will have healthy life-habits as they get older. It is the job of a parent to always consider the final and long-term consequence of their children’s behavior whilst we have those few short years to influence and mold them. Because once they hit their late teens, these opportunities become less and less. Parents have a small window of opportunity – maybe 10 plus years from age four or five – to set them on the right path. 

When the Torah talks of parents going to the extreme length of capital punishment, it’s symbolically telling us that parents have to be willing to go so far as “kill” the material, undisciplined nature of the child at present for his or her spiritual well-being in the future. And indeed, kids often scream bloody-murder when all they are being asked to do is to clean up after themselves. Who has not witnessed a child scream and writhe on the floor in the supermarket when all they are being told is to put back that chocolate bar?

This basic lesson of delayed gratification is an essential one not only for kids but for adults as well. But it has to start early on. Our society would be much better off if parents had the courage and will-power to put in the time and effort to raise their children according to this simple rule. Following this philosophy will ensure that we raise happy, healthy and productive children who will give us much nachat – pride and pleasure – as we, and more importantly- as they grow older. 

I’m going to Graceland
In Memphis Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland…
My traveling companion is nine years old

He is the child of my first marriage
But I’ve reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland
-Paul Simon

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