Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Seitzei: Rebellious teenagers & substance abuse
The Torah prescribes the very harsh capital punishment of execution by stoning, despite the fact that the rebellious son has not committed any major crime. The first time he steals the Torah obligates the parents to take him to a three-judge Beth Din (court) who will punish him with lashes for stealing. The Talmud teaches that since there are so many conditions that must apply before this capital punishment is meted out, this punishment has never occurred and will never occur. The Torah prescribes capital punishment for his future conduct. The Torah warns us that specifically at the age of a young teenager we may not ignore the great dangers of alcoholism and addiction. One of the strongest influences on youths is the peer pressure of their friends. Once a person is intoxicated, the boundaries blur between what is permissible and what is not. The Torah teaches us that as soon as we see even the slightest indication of disobedience and rebelliousness in our children we must deal with it and nib it in the bud. No family should feel that they are above these problems and think that they are secure. Despite the fact that children today spend extensive hours in schools under the guidance of professional educators, the main influence is nevertheless the parental home. When parents accept their responsibility and look after their children as the Torah obligates them, children will feel and see that their home is their safest haven in the stormy waters of society around them.
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Devarim 21:18-21), the Torah speaks about parents dealing with a disobedient and rebellious son. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 68b-72a) dedicates the major part of a chapter to discuss the laws and details of dealing with this difficult teenager. It seems strange that the Torah prescribes the very harsh capital punishment of execution by stoning, despite the fact that this youth has not committed any major crime.
Lashes for stealing
In order to understand the reason for the Torah's extremely strict attitude, we must first investigate how our sages explain this paragraph in the Torah. The Talmud (ibid 70a) teaches that this young man has indulged himself with excessive eating of meat and drinking of wine. The first time this happens the Torah obligates the parents to take him to a three-judge Beth Din (court) who will punish him with lashes for stealing. There are a lot of detailed conditions that must apply before punishment is meted out, including that he must have stolen money from his parents to acquire the meat and wine, and then consumed it in the company of reckless people.
If he continues his rebellious ways after his initial punishment, the parents may take him to a 23 judge Beth Din who will determine whether capital punishment applies. The Talmud (ibid 71a) teaches that this punishment has never occurred and will never occur, as there are so many conditions that must apply before this capital punishment can be meted out. The Talmud asks if so why is this portion written in the Torah altogether? To this the Talmud answers that it was written so that we should study it and receive the reward.
Punishment for future conduct
The commentaries (see Kli Yakar Devarim 21:18 and Mishnos Aharon Vol. 1 p.189) explain that although such a case of punishment never could come to be, there are many important lessons and insights that we learn from this portion. The laws of the rebellious son specifically apply to a young boy for the first three months after the physical signs appear that he has become an adult. The Talmud (ibid 72a) explains that the capital punishment is not for what the rebellious son has done now, as the Torah does not give capital punishment for stealing, and certainly not for being a glutton or drunkard. Rather, the Torah prescribes capital punishment for his future conduct. This young man has become addicted to his eating habits and need for alcoholic beverages. He is not going to stop fulfilling his needs once he has emptied his parental home of money to sustain his habits. Eventually, he will attack strangers to rob them of their money. The Ramban (Devarim ibid) explains that at present the rebellious son's problems are two-fold: (1) He has no respect for his parents and does not listen to them; and (2) His lifestyle is a constant transgression of the obligation to live a life of holiness (Vayikra 19:2). His repetitive actions of defiance and addiction shows that he is not ready to get help to mend his ways. The Talmud explains that for such a person it would be better to die (and enter the World to Come) while he is still innocent before he commits major transgressions and robs and kills people. Concludes the Talmud: "The death of the wicked is good for them and good for society."
Major problem of addiction
In today's world, where so many teenagers fall into the trap of alcohol and drug abuse, these lessons of the Torah are most relevant and of major importance. The Torah warns us that specifically at the age of a young teenager we may not ignore the great dangers of alcoholism and addiction. At first sight it appears just to be a youthful act of experimenting with the pleasure of drinking, but it can very easily escalate into a major problem of addiction.
The Talmud (ibid 70b) makes an additional point, that these laws would only apply if the abuse is taking place in the company of reckless people. This sends a strong message of caution to parents that they must be aware who their children associate with. One of the strongest influences on youths is the peer pressure of their friends. The Talmud (Sotah 25a) states that the judges would say to a suspected adulteress who is taken to the Beth Din, "Our daughter, a lot [of damage] is caused by wine consumption, a lot is caused by light-headedness … by youthfulness and a lot by bad company."
One cannot be cautious enough in selecting a proper school and other venues where one's children will frequent. Permissive secular society has accepted such low standards in moral and ethical values that it is extremely dangerous to let children be educated in secular schools, not to mention allowing them unsupervised freedom. The Jewish people are fortunate to have exact guidelines for what is acceptable and what is not. In addition, the rabbis of the Talmud built "fences" to help avoid the unacceptable. The Talmud (Yuma 74b-75a) warns that alcoholism brings to adultery and theft. Once a person is intoxicated, the boundaries blur between what is permissible and what is not. Hence, says the Talmud, everything appears to be permissible.
In this paragraph, dealing with the rebellious and disobedient son, it further says (Devarim 21:21), "And you shall remove the evil from your midst." The Torah here teaches us that as soon as we see even the slightest indication of disobedience and rebelliousness in our children we must deal with it and nib it in the bud. This is not an easy task for parents to deal with. That is why the Torah (ibid 21:19) instructs and says, "And the father and the mother shall grasp him and take him out to the elders of his city." Although the literal meaning of this verse refers to the judges of the Beth Din, in the broader sense it instructs us to consult with Torah scholars who, with their knowledge and wisdom, can guide us to deal with these situations according to the advice of the Torah.
This is a community issue that affects everyone. As the paragraph concludes and says, "And all of Israel shall hear and they shall fear." No family should feel that they are above these problems and think that they are secure. Only through proper cooperation between the schools and the parental homes can we hope and pray that we will be able to help our young teenagers to develop into productive torah observant members of our society.
Parents main educators
It is crucial to note that the Torah is obligating the parents to deal with their rebellious son. This highlights the responsibility that parents have for their children. Despite the fact that children today spend extensive hours in schools under the guidance of professional educators, the main influence is nevertheless the parental home. A major part of today's problems stems from the breakdown of family values, with so many children growing up without the proper parental guidance. Teachers and educators can be excellent supplements and aids in the education of children; however, parents must be aware that they, and only they, are the main educators of their children.
When parents accept this responsibility and look after their children as the Torah obligates them, in turn the children will feel and see that their home is their safest haven in the stormy waters of society around them. In such families children look up to and appreciate the efforts of their parents and give them much nachas (pleasure). King Solomon said, (Mishlei 22:6), "Educate the youth according to his way and also when he grows old he will not stray from it." We must pray for Divine assistance and do our utmost to provide our children with a true Torah education. Only then can we hope that when they grow up they will continue on this path as proud members of the Jewish nation.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network