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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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If a man has a ben sorer umoreh [a stubborn and rebellious son], who does not listen to the voice of his father or to the voice of his mother, and they chastise him, and he will not listen to them. (DEVARIM 21:18)
Rabbi Akiva Eiger used to visit all the Jews in his city who became ill. Once he paid a visit to someone who had a rare, incurable disease.
Just at that time, the king's physician was travelling through the city. Rabbi Akiva Eiger found out about this, and quickly sent messengers to ask him to examine the sick man. The physician agreed, and when he came to see him, Rabbi Akiva Eiger went along too.
The physician asked Rabbi Akiva Eiger, "Why did you bring me here, when you know that this illness has no cure?"
Rabbi Akiva Eiger answered, "If the king had been ill with this disease, would you have told him that there is no cure?"
"There is no comparison," answered the physician. "The king actually once suffered from this disease, and I told him that there was practically no chance of recovery as the only known remedy is almost impossible to obtain. This remedy comes from a rare bird which lives in a faraway desert.
"When the king heard about this, he sent a whole platoon of soldiers to search for this rare bird. They spread out in the desert, and after great efforts, were finally able to catch such a bird. The king ate the bird and became well. But how can an ordinary person attain such a bird? That is why I say that there is no cure for this illness."
The physician left the city and Rabbi Akiva Eiger returned home, entered his room and immediately began praying to G-d. He said, "Master of the Universe, the Jewish people are your children. They are kings and the sons of kings. Now one of your children needs this bird. Please send it to us!"
A short while later, that very bird appeared on Rabbi Akiva Eiger's window sill. He immediately gave instructions to the people of his household to catch it. Then he ordered them to leave the wings for him, and to cook the rest and serve it to the sick person. This was done, and the man recovered.
After a while, when the royal physician once again visited the city, Rabbi Akiva Eiger sent him the wings, which he had kept as evidence that he had found such a bird. When the physician saw this his reaction was, "Such a thing only the great rabbi can do!" (SHE'AL AVICHA VEYAGEDCHA II, p. 121)
Rabbi Akiva Eiger's love for his fellow Jews knew no bounds, and every Jew was precious in his eyes. He let no obstacle stand in his way to help a fellow Jew. We must take a lesson from this and teach our children how precious they are to us and to G-d. This will encourage them to be the best they can be, and this will insure that they succeed in whatever they undertake.
Simply being stubborn and rebellious does not make a son a ben sorer umoreh. Rather, he must fulfill specific conditions before he reaches this terrible status. For example, a child does not become a ben sorer umoreh until he steals from his father and eats the food he has stolen on someone else's property. The reason for these two conditions is that when a child steals from his parents he steals from a source that is easily accessible to him, and when he eats the food he has stolen on someone else's property, he can eat calmly, since no one knows that he is doing anything wrong.
Why must the child eat from a source that is easily accessible and why must he also be able to eat calmly? Why must the child steal from both his father and his mother? Why does the child not become a ben sorer umoreh if he eats from the seudas mitzvah? Why does consuming forbidden foods exempt him from becoming a ben sorer umoreh when this act seems all the more corrupt? Why can a ben sorer umoreh's parents not be handicapped?
...He steals from his father and eats the food he has stolen on someone else's property.
One of the most effective methods of education is constant repetition of the material or action to be learned until it becomes second nature. Something that is ingrained in a person through constant repetition will not be forgotten easily. Therefore, if the ben sorer umoreh constantly has the opportunity to steal and eat to his heart's content, this will become part of his nature, and it is unlikely that he will be able to change his ways.
If he steals from his parents, this can become habitual because it is so easily accomplished. Through repetition it will become an ingrained part of his nature. This is the reason the child must eat from a source that is easily accessible to him in order for him to qualify as a ben sorer umoreh. Without this element we are not convinced that he will inevitably be corrupted.
The reason he must be able to eat calmly is that this makes what he is doing more enjoyable. Were it to be an unpleasant experience he would not be in a hurry to repeat it. Only when he does something calmly and at ease, do these actions become deeply rooted in his nature. That is why the category of ben sorer umoreh is limited to one who eats on another's property.
A child does not become a ben sorer umoreh until he steals from both his father and his mother.
Why must the child steal from both his father and his mother? If the child shows disrespect to one of his parents and not to the other, this is a clear indication that something is wrong with that particular relationship. Perhaps the parent is not stern enough with the child, and thus the child feels he has a friend and not a parent. As a general rule, if there is something wrong in the child's attitude towards a certain parent, the fault lies in the parent and not in the child. Therefore, the Torah stipulates that in order to qualify as a ben sorer umoreh, the child must steal from both parents. This universal disrespect signifies that the fault lies in him and not in his parents.
Another explanation could be that if the child steals only from one parent, it shows that the child wants to take revenge on that parent. Perhaps the parent does not show him enough love, and the child wants to get his attention by stealing. Because it is only directed towards one parent, there is no indication that something is wrong with the child himself.
A child does not become a ben sorer umoreh if he stole from a seudas mitzvah... or if he ate meat that was not ritually slaughtered...
A seudas mitzvah is something from which the child cannot have any harm. The verse says, "Someone who keeps a mitzvah will not know of anything bad."(1) In other words, when we suffer, we can never blame a mitzvah we have done, as our Sages say, "A mitzvah protects and saves a person from harm."(2) Therefore, even if the child does steal from a meal that celebrates a mitzvah, this stealing cannot turn the child into a ben sorer umoreh, since he will be protected by the mitzvah.
Eating unkosher food affects a person because of its intrinsically impure nature. Such food damages one spiritually and causes his behavior to deteriorate. When the child eats such food, there is no reason for him to become a ben sorer umoreh, since the source of his delinquency is clear. We must simply remove such food from him, and we have begun to solve the problem. Here there is an external influence at work which is not an essential part of the child.
If one of the child's parents lacks an arm or a leg... the child cannot become a ben sorer umoreh.
The reason the child's parents cannot be handicapped for him to be considered a ben sorer umoreh is that a child must see his parents as being the best people in the world. He must feel that there is no one more talented, beautiful, or loving than his parents. This is the way a child normally thinks of his parents, because of all he receives from them. He feels that his parents can save him from all harm. But when he sees that his parents are obviously limited, this may undermine his confidence that they are invulnerable, and might lead him to show disrespectful behavior. Here again it is an external force which determines the child's actions rather than moral corruption.
From this parsha we can see that often when a child does terrible things, it is not the child who is to blame, but rather his parents. Even when a child steals, as we find in the case of the ben sorer umoreh, this usually cannot be attributed to the child. In almost every case the fault lies in the way he is being educated.
There are many true stories of how children turn to robbery and drugs because they are neglected by their parents. In one case, the child's father was overly involved in his business affairs. While he was greatly respected by his workers, he had no time whatsoever for his child. He made the terrible mistake of giving top priority to his business, and consequently lost his son. The child's self-destructive behavior arose from his father's neglecting him.
This may seem an extreme case, but it shows us how far things can deteriorate. The more a person neglects giving love and care to his child, the more he severs the bond between himself and his child. Not having time for your children is a very grave mistake. You have the responsibility to raise them to be normal, healthy, productive people, and they cannot do that without your assistance.
No matter what a child has done, the fault can almost always be found in the parents. The child who knows that his parents love him and are proud of him cannot stray far, since he feels an obligation to live up to his parents' expectations. But when the opposite is true, he looks for ways to get their attention, often through negative behavior. This may be his only tool for getting them to show concern for him.
Unfortunately, there are parents who give top priority to their business career over their children. They may not admit it, but their actions show it. They spend long hours at their jobs and come home very late, or do not come home for days at a time. When they are home, they are always on the phone planning their next business deal. Women, too, sometimes put their careers before their families by spending long hours at work.
Everyone must have an income, but our children come first. When your child sees that you have no time to talk to him or to listen to him, he understands that he is not as important as the business. You do not have to say this to him. Your actions proclaim this message loud and clear.
We have to be careful to set limits to our involvement in business. Shorten your hours. Do not take your business home when at all possible. Also a woman should be at home with her children as much as possible. It is very difficult for a woman to juggle between work and home and give her husband and children her very best after a hard day at work. If the family needs her income or she feels she must work, it is crucial that she and her husband work out a schedule so that they can share chores that need to be done in the home and especially so that they can be there for their children. By working on this problem together, they can ensure that their responsibilities outside the home do not interfere with the important relationship with their children.
These rules apply to a talmid chacham as well. Even though he is learning or teaching Torah, this does not free him from his responsibility to train his own children. Even a talmid chacham has to keep the mitzvos, and it is written explicitly in the Torah, "And you shall teach them to your children."(3) We must take time from our own learning to help our children become talmidei chachamim.
Our Sages assure us that we will not suffer any loss when we take time from business to teach our children Torah. G-d guarantees that we will be reimbursed in full!(4)
It is a great mitzvah to do chesed. Whether it consists in inviting guests, lending money, giving advice, or any communal project, all are important and praiseworthy. But we cannot allow this mitzvah to deprive our own children.
We have no right to invite guests into our homes who will have a negative influence on our children. We cannot occupy ourselves so much with chesed that we do not have time to sit with our children to discuss their problems and give them the attention they need.
It is a basic rule that a mitzvah that cannot be done by others has great importance and has priority even over learning Torah.(5) Educating our children is such a mitzvah. No one can take the place of a parent, since parents have the greatest influence on their own children. Therefore we are free from other mitzvos when our children need us.
This does not mean that we should never do chesed for others. But we must consider our activities according to the needs of our children. They have the highest priority, and if we are sure they are not being deprived, then we can take upon ourselves other activities.
Everyone knows the saying that charity begins at home. People who show chesed to others but not to their own children are making a serious mistake. Perhaps they are looking for praise from strangers, whereas their own children may take the help they receive for granted. But the truth is that the more love you show your child, the more he gains the strength he needs to tackle all the challenges he will have to face in life.
* Shabbos 63a
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network