The Stubborn & Rebellious Son

How often do we punish individuals before addressing the ills of our social structures?


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A criminal is surrounded by a ring of townspeople in the town square and under the orders of the court, he is executed: death by stoning. To be sure, any execution is an upsetting scene, but this particular episode in Parashat Ki Tetze stands out for its deeply troubling nature: the criminal charges are gluttony, drunkenness, and obstinacy. And the criminal is a child (Deut. 21:18).

At first glance, these infractions hardly seem to be on par with capital offenses elsewhere in the Bible: false prophesy (Deut. 13:11), murder (Lev. 24:17), adultery (Lev. 20:10), or kidnapping (Deut. 24:7). These crimes are extremely violent and dangerous. By contrast, the child in this case seems in need of radical intervention, not execution. 

The Rebellious Son

The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin sees in this young man, who they call the “stubborn and rebellious son,” something much more insidious. Though he began stealing from his parents to fuel his appetites, it predicts that “in the end, he will squander his father’s prosperity,” and accomplishing this, will “take his stand at the crossroads and rob people (Rashi 20:18, citing Sanhedrin 72a).”

american jewish world serviceWhat began as familial disappointment will turn into disaster for the family and the innocent people in the village around him. In this sense, though the Rabbis go on to limit the hypothetical applicability of this case until it becomes an impossibility–no real child could ever be stoned for these offenses–they affirm its eternal place in the books for us to learn a lesson:

What goes untreated becomes malignant.

Who Were His Parents?

A deeper reading of the “stubborn and rebellious son” traces his malevolent root seven further back, before his behavior spiraled out of hand, before he was even born. The stubborn and rebellious child is the third legal case of the parashah.The Talmud suggests that the two preceding cases, which may at first seem unrelated, can be read with this third case as a single, sequential narrative (Sanhedrin 107a). By reading them together, we can trace the root of the antisocial behavior to the actions of the child’s father.

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.

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