Rabbi Yakov Haber
Bein Soreir U'Moreh: The Child at Risk
The section of the Torah describing the "bein soreir u'moreh", the rebellious son, presents a difficult enigma. Seemingly for the crime of disobeying his parents, stealing from them and gorging himself on meat and wine, the thirteen-year old is first brought to Beit Din and lashed and, upon repeating the offense, is executed. Rashi provides a solution to part of the problem by quoting the famous Chazal (Sanhedrin 71b) that the son is killed not because of the magnitude of the crime already perpetrated but to save him from a future crime-filled life. If he continues his wayward behavior, he will surely grow up to become a robber to satisfy his great desires and eventually will kill many innocent victims (see Gur Aryeh) for which he will be liable to the death sentence. "Let him die innocent rather than die guilty." Presumably Rashi's words should be interpreted as "Let him die relatively innocent rather than die totally guilty" since he did commit some crimes before his execution.
Even after this explanation, the law still remains difficult as many sources indicate that Hashem judges not according to potential, future actions but according to present behavior. If the present sins of theft and disobedience do not warrant a death sentence, then, by the regular Torah rules, he should not be executed based on possible future behavior. Many of the commentaries present various solutions to this problem. (See Re'eim, Gur Aryeh, and many others.) From a recent perspective, the rebellious son seems to match the description of "Children at Risk", a topic concerning which so much has been written recently in Torah circles. If parents were presented with such a child, they of course would be advised to seek counseling from Torah sages and professionals alike and enroll him in a special educational program to handle such children. They certainly would not be advised to punish him further which would be seen as counterproductive! How can we explain the Torah's approach here?
Further shrouding this section in mystery is the Gemara (Sanhedrin 71a) which states that this section of the Torah is purely theoretical. It never has and never will actually occur due to certain technicalities in its laws. Why then was it written, asks R. Shimon? "D'rosh v'kabeil s'char", study it and receive reward! Commentaries question why the rest of the Torah which is actually halacha l'ma'aseh and not just theoretical would not suffice for study and receiving reward. Though many approaches have been offered, the primary one given is that there are extremely important lessons to be derived from specifically this section of Torah. Kli Yakar teaches that this portion is a stern warning to all Jewish children not to rebel against their parents. If they do and refuse to absorb the important messages their parents wish to convey, they are in danger of falling into a terrible lifestyle ultimately leading to personal disaster. He also explains that there is a message to K'lal Yisrael not to rely solely on Divine mercy and love and that G-d will always overlook their sins and shortcomings. Even though Hashem loves B'nei Yisrael greatly and very often overlooks their sins for long periods of time, if we remain obstinate in our wayward behavior, eventually judgment is exacted. This stern message is of course appropriate for the time in which this Parsha is read, the month of Elul close to the holiday of Rosh HaShana, the Day of Judgment, which highlights the dual themes of Divine love and Divine judgment.
Many commentaries show how this section informs parents about proper and improper parenting techniques. Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita (Orchos Yosher), based on the halacha that both father and mother have to agree in order for this section to apply, broadens this concept to mean that parents, in general, have to present a unified voice in parenting on the backdrop of a harmonious home. If the child constantly sees parental arguments and even heated disagreements concerning the child, he is at risk of developing bad characteristics. The Zohar explains that the passage, "he does not (lit.) hear the voice of his father and the voice of his mother", alludes to the fact that the child does not hear the "sound of Torah" from his father or "the sound of prayer" from his mother. If he does not have positive influences and role models from the home, he is at risk of developing improper, and even disastrous, behavior.
Perhaps we can add that in describing a theoretical death sentence to such a child, the Torah is placing before us a dramatic disaster-scenario which is meant to motivate both child and parent alike as to the enormous stakes at risk in the parent-child relationship. (See Rashi in Acharei Mos that the doctor who warns the patient "eat healthfully lest you die as Mr. X did!" does a better job than one who just warns generally.) Perhaps this is the message of the next part of the previously-quoted Gemara in which R. Yonasan states that he sat at the grave of a "bein soreir u'moreh". Rabbeinu B'Chaye suggests that R. Yonasan does not debate R. Shimon's position that the section is purely theoretical. Rather, R. Yonasan is stating that he was at the grave of a rebellious son who ultimately grew up to lead a life of sin and died as a result. This further enhances the warning message of the parsha.
As pointed out by many recent writers, many parents invest more thought into their investments and careers or even dinner plans than in good, positive parenting techniques. No skill in life does not require a serious period of learning. Parenting, one of the noblest, and most difficult of our missions, certainly requires careful study, consultation and investment of much time and energy into assuring that our children are raised properly with positive influences. Of course, the timeless wisdom of the Torah - both in this section and throughout the corpus of the Written and Oral law as taught by our chachmei ha'dor and as complemented by many recent works published on parenting both from a Torah perspective and a general perspective - serves as the wellspring from which parents can draw advice and encouragement in raising not only "easy" children but "difficult" ones as well. May we all merit "banim uvnei vanim os'kim b'Torah uv'mitzvot tamid!"