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To Life!

09/13/2019 01:22:34 PM

Sep13

Rabbi Steven Suson

This month of Elul is spent preparing for the upcoming new year. Unlike the secular new year which is commonly welcomed with lavish parties and overindulgence, the Jewish method of marking the head of the year is much more reflective and personal. It is not about whom we are kissing at the moment the ball drops in Times Square. It is about taking steps to implement changes in our lives, to make next year better than the last. For that, we must take time - before the clock runs out - to examine our physical actions, become mindful and take control of our emotions, and explore our spirituality and relationships with God and the cosmos. That’s a tall order, even given a month to prepare.

This week’s parasha helps us understand our challenge. It describes the rebellious child, who is basically a no-goodnik. He drinks. He steals. He doesn’t listen to his parents or authority. Scripture explicitly instructs that that person be put to death by stoning. The rabbis were aghast at the idea - after all, he didn’t commit a capital offense! 

Perhaps, the suggestion is made, he is executed to prevent him from performing a more serious crime, which he is very likely to do. But we do not punish people in advance of their having committed a crime! That doesn’t sound like the Jewish way. We usually tend to focus on people’s actions rather than their thoughts. We do not judge people for acts they may have meditated about but never acted upon.

The sages did not like this verse in practicality so they made sure to limit the application of this law so much (in a brilliant talmudic way) that they conclude there never was and could never be an actual prosecutable case of ben sorer u’moreh (the rebellious child). Having done away with the unpleasant practical implications of the law (i.e. stoning one’s own son), we are left to deal with the philosophical implications. Why does the Torah condemn our rebel son to die? What of the fact that we don’t punish folks for crimes they have not yet committed?

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (8:5) leaves a different impression of the rebellious child. Not that we kill him - but that he is better off dead. Not put do death - but deserving of death. He might as well be executed because by carrying on with his destructive behavior, the rebellious son is putting himself at mortal risk. He is on a road to disaster, which he paved for himself!

The Ben Sorrer U’moreh reminds us that our choices have repercussions. The guidebook for how to be a mensch and live a blessed life is available accessable to each of us. That is the meaning of Torah Tziva Lanu. 

Each year, in fact each moment, we have an opportunity to make sure that our values match our actions. If it’s true that there never was an actual case of a rebellious child who was sentenced to death, then perhaps it is meant as a warning - that we all have some habits and quirks that smack of his.

In this season of repentance, may we all have the strength to honestly peer inside ourselves and make sure that our behaviors are consistent with our values. We demonstrate with our actions that we are deserving of continued life. That is how Jews prepare for and celebrate New Years.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Steven Suson 

Thu, November 14 2019 16 Cheshvan 5780