“Lessons from the Wayward Son”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, we learn of the law of the “Ben soh’rayr oo’moh’reh,”  בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה , the wayward and rebellious son. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 21:18, describes the wayward and rebellious son as one who refuses to hearken to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם , and they discipline him, but he does not listen to them. The parents then take the child out to the elders of the city and proclaim: “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” The Torah then concludes (Deuteronomy 21:21), that all the men of the city are to pelt him [the boy] with stones, and he shall die; and you shall remove the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear and they shall fear. The law of the “Ben soh’rayr oo’moh’reh” is surely one of the most complex laws in the Torah. According to many of the sages of the Talmud, it was virtually impossible to fulfil all the conditions necessary to execute the boy. In order to do so, the child had to be a particular age (between 13 and one day and 13 and 3 months), he must have consumed a very specific amount of meat and wine, not more or less. His parents had to “speak with one voice,” which is very unlikely, given the differences between male and female voices. The regulations were so specific, that the sages of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) declare that there was never a case of a בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה , a wayward and rebellious child. The only reason that the law is recorded in the Torah is to teach fathers and mothers the art of good parenting. The case of the “Ben soh’rayr oo’moh’reh” is not only meant to teach good parenting, but may also serve as an important source of information to all who seek to achieve a good life. Of particular relevance to our generation, are the issues of gluttony and intoxication which have become common in our times. The relative tranquility and peace of contemporary times and the abundance of wealth and resources may be unparalleled in human history, certainly for the Jews, but these blessings have become a breeding grounds for excess. According to Maimonides, Book of Knowledge 1:7, the laws and rituals of Judaism are intended to promote a “golden mean.” Judaism does not encourage excess, nor does it endorse asceticism. It strives to strike a balance in life that leads to true fulfillment and happiness. That the excesses of contemporary society are so great, can be easily confirmed by the ubiquitous self-help groups that have sprung up for an untold variety of behaviors, the most popular being addiction to alcohol and drugs, gambling, sex and overeating. In reality, the issues are limitless. Rashi citing the Sifre and the Talmud Sanhedrin 71a, describes the procedures of the “Ben soh’rayr oo’moh’reh.”  The parents discipline the child and warn him before a court of three judges. If the child transgresses despite the warning, he is flogged. If he continues his prodigal ways, the wayward and rebellious son is still not liable to punishment until he steals and eats a specific amount of meat and drinks a specific amount of wine. Rashi explains that the wayward and rebellious child is not punished because of his actions, but rather because of what he might do later if he is not controlled. The Torah, which attempts to presume the child’s way of thinking, assumes that if the defiant behavior continues, the child will exhaust his father’s resources. Seeking to maintain his habits, the boy will then stand at the crossroads and rob people. The Torah therefore says: “Let him die now as an innocent person and not die as a guilty person.” What was is it that Pogo said? “We have met the enemy and he is us.” There is so much of the wayward and rebellious child in each of us that is frequently reflected in contemporary society. So many communities and individuals find themselves constantly fighting and wrestling with the limits of pleasure. Contemporary society is faced with unlimited pleasure, unlimited sport, unlimited gaming, unlimited internet, which on the surface does not seem very harmful, but in the long run, is quite perilous. America is faced with a very serious problem of obesity, especially among young children whose rate of obesity has tripled since the 1970s. Others struggle with bulimia, anorexia and binge eating disorders. Jewish mothers are often subject to the accusation of being overly protective and always warning their children, “Ess ess mein kind,” “Eat, eat my child, they are starving in Africa!” The Code of Jewish Law Orach Chaim 180:2, suggests the opposite, warning that one must not be a glutton when eating. In fact, it is proper to leave something over on a plate, as a reminder that there are others who are without food, starving while we are stuffing our faces. The disparity between the rich and the poor today is so great that what is thrown out from a single Shabbat meal could feed a family of five who are hungry, who live, not in India, but in New York City, quite possibly, on the next block! With Jerusalem in ruins, the psalmist (Psalm 137) asks: “How can we sing?” With so many starving, how can we possibly eat and drink, laugh and smile? If we are truly our brothers’ keepers, we must learn well the lesson of the בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה , the wayward and gluttonous child. We must learn to control our appetites and master our temptations. We must not look away from those who are following us with their ravenous eyes and gazing with hunger at our food. We must strive to achieve far more equitable treatment for the poor, for the infirm, the disabled, and for all those who languish for a morsel of bread. The wayward and rebellious son may be a philosophical construct that may have never occurred. But, every one of us must learn from this important Torah portion that every bite that we eat, every morsel of food that passes through our lips, has moral consequences on our lives, our children, our homes, our environments and impacts on the entire world and, ultimately, on all of humankind. May you be blessed.