Troubled children and children in Trouble (Ki Tetze)

One of the many (challenging) laws found in Parshat Ki Tetze is that of the ‘wayward and rebellious son’ (Devarim 21:18-21).

According to a literal reading of this law, a Jewish court may put a boy to death having heard his parent’s testimony concerning his repeated disobedience and gluttony. However, given the obvious dissonance between the ‘crime’ and punishment, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) records a view that this law was never intended to be practiced, and rather, was placed in the Torah to serve a higher pedagogic purpose. But even were this to be so, what lesson can, or should be learnt from this law?

While a variety of explanations have been offered by classic and modern commentators, I recently came across a profound interpretation by Rabbi S. D. Sassoon. He explains that the ancient world regarded their children as property of which they had full ownership, which meant that when a parent was dissatisfied with their child’s behaviour, they would to beat them – often to the point of death. Based on the Torah’s description of this law, it is clear that the ‘wayward and rebellious son’ was a nuisance, but not a danger. However, what is also clear is that this son is at risk. For example, we read how ‘his father and mother grab him’, highlighting the fact that his parents are frustrated, and perhaps even abusive.

Given such a situation, this law obligates parents to turn this ‘wayward and rebellious son’ to the court who would thoroughly investigate his behaviour prior to determining if (any) punishment is necessary. As Rabbi Moshe Shamah wisely points out in his ‘Recalling the Covenant’, the Torah states that the son is taken to the elders of “his” town as if to point out that ‘that this town is also the boy’s town, not just that of his parents; he also has rights, which it is the responsibility of the town leaders to uphold’.

Thus, Rabbi Shamah continues, ‘the case of the wayward and rebellious son is about the right of a troublesome or challenged child, or one with less-than-competent parents, to fair treatment and a decent upbringing. It is an attempt to involve capable outsiders in addressing the situation. As such, this case… follow[s] in the spirit of the textual context in which it is embedded, namely, concern and protection for the potentially exploited individual.’

What we must learn from here is that whenever we suspect that a child is in danger, we must stand up for the rights of that child and help them by involving capable outsiders to address the situation. As the Sefer HaChinuch so beautifully puts it, ישוב העולם יתקים בתשועת החלש מיד חזק ממנו– ‘society can only function with the protection of the weak from those stronger’ (Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 600).


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