The Wayward Son


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:12 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 21:10-25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
Havdalah: 8:11 p.m.

“If a man has a wayward and rebellious child…  and they warn and flog him, but he still does not obey them; then his parents may take him out to the judges of the city” where he may be put to death. [Deuteronomy 21:18-21].

What defines a “wayward and rebellious” child? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 68b-71a) contends that here is a youngster who is growing into a menacing and murderous monster.  However, they limit the time period of this case to three months following the onset of puberty; insist that he must have stolen a large amount of meat and wine from his parents which he himself consumed; and conclude that “this youth is punished now for what will inevitably happen later on; it is better that he die (more or less) innocent rather than be put to death after having committed homicide.”

Nevertheless, “punishing now for what will inevitably happen later” runs counter to the judicial system, and is even countermanded by a famous midrash.

The Bible tells us that when Sarah saw that Ishmael was a bad influence on her son, Isaac, she insisted (with God’s agreement) that both Ishmael and Hagar, his mother, be banished into the desert. An angel who sees mother and child wandering, hungry and thirsty, comforts Hagar: “Do not fear; God has heard the (crying) voice of the lad from where he is now” [Genesis 21:9-17].

On these words, “from where he is now,” Rashi cites the Midrash which seems to defy the Talmudic position of the wayward child: “He is judged in accordance with his present actions and not for what he will eventually do.” The angels in heaven began to prosecute Ishmael, pointing out to God that Ishmael’s children “will eventually slay your children (the Israelites) with thirst, You are miraculously providing a well with water (in the desert)?” And God responds, ‘What is he now, righteous  or wicked?’ They responded, ‘Righteous,’” in the sense that he was not yet worthy of capital punishment. God answered, “I judge him in accordance with his present actions. I judge him from where he is now.”

If God is explaining the foundations of Jewish jurisprudence, how do we explain the previous Talmudic explanation of “punishment now for what will eventually happen”?

Based upon a very literal interpretation of the verses, the Talmud sets many more limitations upon the case of the rebellious child. The parents must have all their limbs, and full ability of hearing and seeing in order to punish the youth (after all, they “take him” with their hands, “to the judges,” with their legs, claim “he does not obey our voice,” so they cannot be mute, etc.).

I interpret this as the necessary parental hands to embrace as well as to chastise, the necessary parental legs to accompany him to places of learning, inspiration and fun as he was growing up, the necessary parental ears to hear his dreams, fears and frustrations and the necessary parental eyes to see what he’s doing, what he’s not doing, and whom he is befriending. If parents are not personally and significantly involved in the development of their child, then, according to the Talmud, the child cannot be blamed, or punished, for becoming wayward or rebellious.

Moreover, the parents must be “equal in voice, appearance and stature”: they must provide a single message of values and lifestyle. If either of the parents is unwilling to bestow such a punishment, the punishment is not executed.

All of this leads to a ringing Talmudic declaration: “The case of the wayward and rebellious child never was and never will be” [Sanhedrin 71a].

Apparently, the limitations were so great that they obviated the possibility of ever actually executing the  punishment. Nevertheless, parents have much to learn about the seriousness of parenting by taking to heart, mind and action the rabbinic explication of the verses.

As for Ishmael, there were many reasons for his expiation by the Almighty: after all, Abraham and Hagar were not suited for each other and did not provide unified standards of behavior and values. Ishmael himself repents at the end of his life and it is God who ultimately forgives him.

If flesh-and-blood parents can prevent execution, then our Divine Parent must certainly have the right to stay an execution. Only God knows that sometimes the genetic make-up of the child is of such a nature, or a traumatic event caused such a rupture in his personality, that neither he nor his flesh-and-blood parents can be held to be culpable. But whatever the case may be, it’s crucial that parents do everything they can, to the best of their ability, to give their children the basic three things which every child deserves: love, limits and personal involvement.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.