Ki Teitzei 5776 - 2016

Post date: Sep 15, 2016 6:26:36 PM

Ki Tei’tzei: Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tei’tzei, begins with a substantial, though perhaps not particularly timely, piece of parenting advice. First, the parsha describes how to apportion one’s inheritance to one’s children, particularly when one has children from a less preferred wife – in this case, a man is required to give the inheritance to the first-born son, even if he is the son of the less preferred wife. This is strikingly reminiscent of Jacob, his wives Rachel and Leah, and the blatant favoritism that Jacob showed to Rachel’s sons, Joseph and Benjamin who came late in the birth order. Perhaps recognizing this dysfunctional family dynamic, the Torah insists here that favoritism cannot strip a rightful first-born son of his birthright and inheritance.

The Torah goes on to handle more direct parenting situations, namely that of a rebellious (root מרה mem-resh-hey) and stubborn (root סרר samech-resh-resh) child – a ben sorare oo’moreh. According to Deuteronomy, if parents have a rebellious child who does not listen to them, they are directed to take him to the elders of the city. Once with the elders, they are to say: “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard” (Deut. 21:20). Then, all the men of the city are to stone the child to death, “so you shall put away the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear” (Deut. 21:21).

Coming from a field (child psychology) where I give parenting advice relatively often, this passage stood out – it is one of those parts of Torah that make me roll my eyes, and then actively feel grateful for the society we live in today. Certainly stoning a rebellious child to death is far from anything we can imagine today, but why is this passage here?

It should be noted that there is no record of that law ever being applied. It's hard to imagine So even more so, why is it here? Could it reflect the author's own real or perceived problem with what they considered to be children who were amok?

The root of the word moreh - rebellious – is one that means not only to rebel, but also to disobey. Obedience is an interesting word, particularly when considering the overlap between the fields of sociology (as may be used to understand a society that permitted stoning of rebellious children) and child psychology. Social psychologists and sociologists often speak of obedience in a negative way – obedience is what allows soldiers to follow orders to kill, and it is what creates unthinking violent human beings. However, obedience is also something many parents strive for in their children – the connotations are not engaging in inhumane, aggressive behavior, but rather doing as one is told without argument.

Obedience is not a word that sits well with many people I know, but it is a word I run into more times than I could have imagined working with parents. Parents, and other adults who work with children, frequently tell me their chief complaint is that their child does not obey – they don’t listen, they argue, they don’t do as they are told. People are often highly distressed by this lack of obedience (or, as we typically term the behavior – compliance).

Usually, I not only work with parents, but also with the children directly. I frequently ask them to do difficult, unpleasant tasks for which they get little reward or praise. And yes, sometimes they are not compliant. At times, I negotiate and bribe and cajole and plead with them to finish the work, and I understand a tiny piece of how exhausting it must be to parent or teach this child.

Yet, each time I meet a non-compliant, not obedient, rebellious, and stubborn child, a part of me smiles. Rebellion, to me, signifies a bright, burning spirit inside a young person – it means they have will and want and are full of energy to let you know what those wills and wants are. It is frustrating beyond belief, but refreshing and satisfying nonetheless. To see a growing, maturing young boy or girl who is passionate enough to defy and to argue about even the simplest of requests makes me sure that our society will never turn in to the dystopian future articulated by Orwell and the like. Recognizing the value of passion is what the Torah has missed in this parsha – rebellious and stubborn children (and adults) have passion. And that passion, when channeled and guided, can become an incredible force for social change.

Shabbat Shalom,

Yvonne Asher