Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 14 September 2019 / 14 Elul 5779

A Rebel with a Cause

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Kaddish

The law of the ben sorer u’moreh, the rebellious son who is put to death in his adolescence at the request of his parents, is unusual in many regards. Our Sages have taught that there never was such a disobedient and recalcitrant son in the past, and there will never be one in the future. Rather, it was and will remain only a theoretical “problem,” as the conditions stipulated by law can never actually be satisfied. It was written, then, not as practical law, but a rich source of pedagogic truths, whose study is of great benefit for the educational work of parents.

Rav Hirsch’s masterful explication of the laws of the ben sorer u’moreh spans many pages, and distills several essential principles in education from the various details of the laws. We summarize here but a few.

The first aspect of the law that draws our attention is the age-span during which the death penalty is applicable — the first three months after a boy has reached the age of puberty, usually upon completion of his thirteenth year. We see that this period is regarded as a crucial phase in the formation of a child’s character. While this period is marked by an awakening of the latent sensual impulses and appetites, it can, and should, also be marked by the awakening of the moral strength that will guide the child away from vice and base passion. That latter awakening is characterized with the joy of discovering the truth and is fueled by the desire to adopt great and noble values — the discovery of a higher-self. Precisely when the struggle is born, the wherewithal to succeed is also born, and must be carefully cultivated as the child “comes of age.” This is when a child becomes a bar mitzvah, literally a “son of the commandment” and acquires the discipline and striving necessary to overcome temptation and commit to the law.

If, at the time when he is supposed to be developing seriousness and maturity, he displays such defiant conduct zollel v’soveh, out-and-out gluttony and drunkenness — then we can be certain that any further effort at character training will only end in failure. The glutton’s desire for good food takes precedence over any moral considerations, such that he pilfers from his own parents. In addition, to be liable, not only must he have used the stolen money for his revelry, but he must have consumed it in the company of good-for-nothings.

To summarize: the ben sorer u’moreh must have displayed willful, perverse disobedience in general, excessive predilection for good food and alcoholic drinks, pilfering at home and keeping bad company. These sad criteria — which as defined have never and will never be met — should each engage our attention as parents and educators.

One of these traits in particular — gluttony — is one we sometimes unwittingly encourage. When cuisine is given high importance in the home — where the assortment of sushi or the price of wines and scotch is the gage of the happiness at a joyous occasion — we communicate base pleasure over refinement. Rav Hirsch encourages teaching and modeling moderate eating, including occasional finer cuisine, to help children discover on their own the limits of the happiness that a good steak or good wine can bring. When those limits are realized, an appetite can be developed for the finer joys of life.

Another requirement of the ben sorer u’moreh holds the key to child-rearing. This son can be liable only if his parents were of the same voice and heart. They must come to the judges declaring, our child does not listen to our voice. If this unity and consistency is lacking, then we fault the parents and not the child. To be successful parents, they must be equals, completely in agreement, of one heart and mind in their education of their child.

  • Sources: Commentary, Devarim 21:18;
  • Collected Writings VII, p.333 ff.

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