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Teach Your Children

One of the weirder laws in the Torah is the law of the rebellious son, where parents ask the government to execute their child:

.כִּי יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ וְאֶל שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ. וְאָמְרוּ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקֹלֵנוּ זוֹלֵל וְסֹבֵא. וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים וָמֵת וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ – If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his father or his mother, and they rebuke him, and he still does not listen to them; his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; he is a glutton and a guzzler.” All the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you cast out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear. (21:18-21)

It’s probably safe to say that capital punishment against children offends our sensibilities. Even if it were certain that such a child will eventually become a murderer, it shouldn’t sit well to punish someone for a crime they haven’t yet committed.

Apparently, it didn’t sit well with our sages either, who disqualified any practical applications for as long as we know.

Our sages set tight parameters to meet the definitional requirements of the mitzvah: the age bracket is limited to a boy in the three months following his 13th birthday; he needs to have stolen and eaten impossible quantities of meat; cooked in a particular way; paired with a precise amount of wine; all while on his father’s property. What’s more, both parents must agree that their son ought to be executed.

The concurrence of all these restrictive conditions is not just improbable – it is impossible, and the Gemara records that no court ever carried out this law, concluding that the law exists exclusively for us to study the law and merit its reward.

But the Torah isn’t short of laws and stories, and there is no minimum page count or word count target that requires bulk or filler.

What is the particular reward for studying the law never-practiced law of the rebellious son that is absent from the rest of the Torah?

R’ Moshe Mordechai Epstein suggests that by inverting the parameters of what goes wrong in a rebellious son, the Torah reveals its guidelines for decent parenting.

The behavioral problems the Torah discusses result from overindulgence. We use the term “spoilt” to describe it, literally meaning that the person has been ruined. Parents must discipline through rewards and punishments to teach self-control, working towards curbing excessive, self-centered behaviors.

With this law, the Torah tells us to recognize the signs a child is growing out of control and to do something about it – וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ. It’s not filler content at all; it’s an instruction to study the pitfalls and frightening consequences of poor parenting – וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ.

While the purpose of child discipline is to develop and entrench desirable social habits in children, the ultimate goal is to foster particular judgment and morals, so the child develops and maintains self-discipline throughout the rest of their life.

When a young plant grows curved, fastening a splint is all it requires to grow straight and strong. Hitting children is no longer culturally acceptable, and that’s an overwhelmingly good thing. But if you love your children, you must correct and discipline them in a way they’ll understand.

It is hard work, but then again, it takes twenty years to grow an oak tree and only a couple of months to grow a cucumber.