Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 2 September 2017 / 11 Elul 5777

Parshat Ki Tetzei

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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The Rebellious Son

One of the more puzzling mitzvot in this parsha concerns the “wayward and rebellious son” who can be executed at the age of 13 for what appear to be relatively minor infractions. Briefly, the Torah describes a 13 year-old boy who does not listen to his parents, even after they discipline him. They bring him to the elders of the city and explain: “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not listen to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard” (Devarim 21:20). He is then stoned to death by the people of the city in order to remove this evil from the populace and to instill fear in them as well.

Abarbanel explains that on the simplest level “wayward” refers to his deviating from the general path of the mitzvot, while “rebellious” refers to his intractable defiance of his parents. He is also guilty of explicitly transgressing the requirement to honor one’s parents. And finally, his drunkenness and gluttony places him even lower than animals, which eat only to satisfy their basic needs. The Talmud also says that he is essentially executed on his likely future behavior: stealing from his parents and committing violent highway robbery against the general public. This illustrates the general principle that “It is better to die innocent of transgression than to die guilty.”

Abarbanel explains further that when we look deeper into this situation we can see how far this young man has deviated from behavioral norms. Normally, in Jewish law no one can be executed without the testimony of two “kosher” witnesses. In this case, the only witnesses are the parents, who would normally be disqualified from testifying against their own son. They also must bring him to the court themselves, another indication of their commitment to a procedure which could result in the death of their own offspring. His behavior and attitude would have had to be egregious in the extreme for the parents to overcome their natural inclination to be merciful toward their child. He is judged and executed publicly, and the Torah tells us that “…all Israel will hear and they will fear.” Everyone will shudder to think what such a deviant individual would be capable of once he reaches true adulthood.

The severity of his deviance is also indicated by the Torah’s choice of words in describing his personality. The word “moreh” — which is usually translated as “rebellious” — is directly related to the word for “teacher”. Not only does he not listen to his parents and rebels against them, he even seeks to reverse roles and become their teacher, attempting to convince them that his disavowal of the Torah and the norms of human behavior are actually the correct way to conduct one’s life. Anti-religious, anti-social, gluttonous and psychopathic behaviors have characterized human society since time immemorial, but rarely if ever have such individuals advocated their codification as the norms of society. This phenomenon is aptly described by King Solomon in Proverbs (30:11-13): “His father he will curse and his mother he will not bless. He will be pure in his own eyes and from his filth he will not be cleansed. One whose eyes are haughty….”

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