Parashat Kit Tetze: The parental role

The mother and the father must be 'equal in voice, appearance, and stature.'

PARASHAT: KI TETZE What defines a "wayward and rebellious" child? How is he to be punished? Whose fault is it - his, his parents', or society's? This week's Torah portion of Ki Tetze deals with the tragedy of such a problematic situation with amazing courage and sensitivity, and provides important directions for parenting, even today. The words of the Bible, as quoted above, are rather stark, even jarring, to the modern ear: The Sages of the Talmud (B.T. Sanhedrin Chapter 68-71) initially take the approach that here is a youngster who seems to be growing into a murderous monster. They limit the time period of punishment to three months following the onset of puberty, insist that it applies only if he stole a large amount of meat and wine from his parents which he himself consumed, and conclude that "this youth is punished now for what will inevitably happen later on; it is better that he die innocent rather than be put to death after having committed homicide." Despite these limitations, the case still seems rather extreme. Many modern commentators argue that the Bible is actually limiting an ancient practice in which parents had unlimited authority over their children, even to the extent of putting their rebellious children to death, and here the waywardness is defined, the time span is limited, and the child must be tried before judges. Nevertheless, the very axiom of "punishing now for what will inevitably happen later on" runs counter to everything in our biblical and judicial system, and is even countermanded by a famous midrash: The Bible tells us that Sarah, the wife of Abraham, saw Ishmael, the son of Abraham's mistress Hagar, "sporting"; she believes that he is a bad influence on her son Isaac, and God agrees with her that the mistress and her son are to be banished into the desert. An angel sees them wandering and suffering, hungry and thirsty, and comforts Hagar: "Do not fear; God has heard the [crying] voice of the lad from where he is now" (Genesis 21:9-17). Says the midrash (Rashi ad loc) "'From where he is now': He is judged in accordance with his present actions and not for what he will eventually do. The angels in heaven began to prosecute [Ishmael], saying, 'Master of the Universe, how can you miraculously provide a well with water for someone whose children will eventually slay your children [the Israelites] with thirst? And [God] responded, 'At this moment what is he, righteous or wicked?' They responded, "Righteous' [in the sense that he was not yet deserving of capital punishment]. God answered, 'In accordance with his present actions do I judge him, from where he is now.'" If God is setting the foundations of Jewish jurisprudence, how do we explain the previous talmudic idea of "punishment now for what will eventually happen"? The fact is that the Talmud continues to set many more limitations upon the case of the wayward and rebellious child based upon a very literal interpretation of each biblical word, making it virtually impossible to ever execute judgment against him. First of all, the parents must have full use of all their limbs and full hearing and sight to punish the youth (after all, the Bible provides that they "take him" with their hands; "to the judges," with their legs; and claim "he does not obey our voice." I have always interpreted this as the necessary parental hands to embrace as well as to chastise, the legs to accompany him to places of learning, inspiration and fun as he was growing up, the ears to hear his dreams, fears and frustrations, and the eyes to see what he's doing, where he is going, and whom he is befriending. Children deserve to receive time and attention from parents - and quantity time is the real definition of quality time! If parents are not personally and significantly involved in the development of their child, then the child cannot be blamed, or punished, for becoming wayward or rebellious, according to the Talmud. Moreover, the mother and father must be "equal in voice, appearance and stature": They must provide a single message of values and life-style to which they themselves subscribe, and they must act in concert and harmony in providing a unified household. They must be "fit for each other" - otherwise, mixed parental messages and models will also remove culpable guilt from the child. Finally, if either parent demurs, expressing unwillingness to mete out such a punishment, the punishment is not executed. All of this leads to a ringing talmudic declaration: "The case of the wayward and rebellious child never was and never will be. Expound the verses and you will receive reward" (B.T. Sanhedrin 71a). Apparently, the limitations were so great that they obviated the possibility of ever executing the punishment. Nevertheless, parents have much to learn about the seriousness of parenting by taking to heart, mind and action the rabbinic explication of the verses. From this perspective, we can also understand Ishmael's exoneration; after all, Abraham and Hagar did not provide a unified standard of behavior and values, the two were certainly not fit for each other, there was a primary wife who had another son, Isaac, with Abraham who was apparently slated to be the familial heir and recipient of the birthright, and Ishmael himself repented at the end of his life. Even more importantly, it is God who ultimately forgave Ishmael. The Talmud teaches that there are three parents to every child: mother, father and God. If flesh-and-blood parents can prevent execution - in most instances, because they realize that they share the blame - our Divine Father must certainly have the right to stay the execution. Only God knows that sometimes the genetic makeup of the child is of such a nature, or a traumatic event caused such a rupture in his personality, that neither he nor his parents can be held to be culpable. But whatever the case may be, it's crucial that parents do everything they can, to the best of their ability, to give their children the basic three things which all children deserve from their parents: love, limits and personal involvement. Shabbat shalom Ki Tetze, Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19, is read on September 17.