Parashat Ki Tetze

Synthesizing The Influences Of Our Parents

The legal limits placed on the case of the rebellious child reflect the Torah's understanding of the complexity of parental influences on children.

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The fact that we all have two parents, who are two different people, of two different genders, and who have, throughout all our lives, spoken to us in two different voices, mitigates our responsibility for our failures, and makes it impossible for our parents, and for society, to hold us up to the standards of perfection expressed in this case. If the Torah feels we can kill the rebellious son because we know already how he will turn out as an adult, our more complex make-up makes it impossible to predict accurately whom we will ultimately grow up to be.

A Conflict

We are all in conflict. Every one of us is the product of two different sets of genes and two different approaches to the world. This is one of the sources of our difficulties in life. The lack of clarity about who we are is built in--we are hard-wired to contain within us two different people. The Rabbis knows this, and therefore do not hold us to the ridiculously high standard to which the wayward and rebellious son is held.

Only that impossible creature, the child of two people who are exactly the same, could be expected to behave completely in accordance with his parents', and his society's, values and expectations, and should be punished so severely if he fails to do so. A real human being, with two different parents, is not held to such an impossibly high standard.

This approach can help us understand ourselves, our parents, and our children. All of us grow up in a reality that is complex, that is intrinsically not monolithic. We are made up of, and are raised by, two different people. The values of one may be in conflict with those of the other; we experience that conflict within ourselves. The dreams of one may be the nightmares of the other; we feel that conflict within ourselves. The voice of one is competing with the voice of the other; we hear both those voices (and others!) within ourselves. Were we all able to approach some sort of harmony, if not unison, more could be expected of us. The Rabbis realized that that expectation is theoretical only--such unison never was and never will be.

The lesson contained in the law of ben sorer u'moreh tells us, however, that, as parents and as children, we are meant to strive for unison, and the perfection and moral clarity it will bring, while realizing that we will never reach it. As long as we, as parents, know that our children are not the products of some perfectly and precisely matched union, but, rather, that they see and hear and experience a complicated mix of messages, we will not make the deadly demand of perfection from them.

Actually, I think we are also meant to breathe a sigh of relief that such perfection has never been and will never be reached--the demands it makes on us seem unbearable.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.