Life Advice from the Worst Parents in the Torah
This Shabbos, the Torah tells us the most tragic parenting story imaginable: the story of the Ben Sorer U'moreh. It's the story of a child, who, just before his bar mitzvah, begins down a road that will lead to his total spiritual destruction. Ultimately, the pesukim describe, his parents will bring him to the Sanhedrin to be executed.
It's an impossibly painful saga for anyone to fathom. Thankfully, the conditions for a boy to become a Ben Sorer U'moreh are incredibly difficult to satisfy. The Sanhedrin will need to prove that there was not a single external contributing factor to explain this boy's behavior. He must have had access to a stellar education, wonderful, harmonious and loving parents, excellent health for himself and his parents, etc... Only when everything in his life is perfect, can the Torah conclude that he is fully culpable for his actions. Absent of even one detail, he cannot be a Ben Sorer U'moreh.
This is a powerful perspective in our understanding of people in general. How often is a child (or adult!) simply reacting to some unseen challenges that they are facing? Are we so convinced that the negativity we’re seeing in someone truly originates in them?
Indeed, creating such an ideal environment is so nearly impossible that the Talmud (סנהדרין ע”א א) suggests: בן סורר ומורה לא היה ולא עתיד להיות – throughout Jewish history, there has never been a Ben Sorer U’moreh, nor will there ever be.
But let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment, and imagine the story playing out: The perfect child, from a perfect family, in a perfect community; who nevertheless chooses the path of rebelliousness and destruction.
Imagine the tears, the horror, the despair. No doubt, his rebbeim and teachers would've have been discussing him for years. He's bounced from class to class, teacher to teacher. His parents have dedicated hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to multiple attempts at therapy. And despite all efforts, this child is relentless and incurable.
Imagine that child – determined, defiant, arrogant, angry. With no options left, his parents bring him to Yerushalayim as the Torah describes. The judges call witnesses, consults psychologists, and reach the impossible conclusion that he is a bona fide Ben Sorer U’moreh. The Sanhedrin is about to rule that he must be executed. But just before the sentence is handed down, his parents begin to cry uncontrollably. Please, they beg, despite everything, we forgive him, we want him, we love him. Don't sentence him!
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (88a) tells us:
בן סורר ומורה שרצו אביו ואמו למחול לו מוחלין לו A stubborn and rebellious son whose father and mother wish to forgive him, they may forgive him.
Even in the last moment. They can pick him up and take him home.
This idea, while beautiful, is troubling. Why indeed is this the Halacha? Chazal tell us that a Ben Sorer U'Moreh is not judged based on what he has already done, but for what he will do if he continues down this now inevitable path.
After all, what exactly are his crimes? Thus far, all he has done is theft, eating too much meat and drinking too much wine. In any other case, these crimes are not deserving of the death penalty, but the Torah declares with Divine certainly (that only Hashem Himself could claim): Such a child, at this age and stage of life will become a menace to himself and society. Better that he die now, rather than destroy himself, his family and the world any further.
But if the Ben Sorer U'Moreh is judged on what he will become, what difference does it make if his parents forgive him for what he has done?! How are they given this power? Hasn't the Torah declared that his future is a forgone conclusion?
The Shem Mishmuel (כי תצא תרע”א) explains:
כשאביו ואמו מוחלין לו הנה הוא עדיין נקשר בשלשלת הקודש, שוב אינו נהרג, שיכול להיות שעוד ישוב בתשובה שלימה המתקבלת
The moment that his parents forgive him, he is reconnected to the Jewish people, and his fate is not yet sealed. He can no longer be killed, because now it is possible that he will do Teshuva.
As long as his parents believe in him, he has a chance at returning and repairing. Only one who is completely disconnected from Klal Yisrael, from his parents and friends can be deemed a lost cause. But for this child, his parents' forgiveness alone plugs him back in to eternity.
Of course, this truth is not limited to our relationship with our children. No Jew's life experience exists in a vacuum. When we relate to people with love, with respect and with graciousness, we transform who that person is, and impact who they can become.
This influence – the effect that our confidence in other has on those around us – is not only transformative, it’s the primary Avoda of our generation.
The Mishna in Avos (א:ב) famously tells us:
שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:
Shimon the Tzadik was from the remnants of the Great Assembly. He would say, “On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on Service and on Acts of Lovingkindness.”
During the summer months the Sfas Emes would learn Pirkei Avos with his son, later to become the Imrei Emes. Commenting on that Mishna, the Imrei Emes explained in the name of his father:
The world stands on three things: Torah, Avoda and Chessed. But our history has shown that we have not always worked on these pillars simultaneously. Before Hashem gave us the Torah, the world did not have Torah. And since the destruction of Yerushalayim, we no longer have the Avoda of the Korbanos. Therefore, we must conclude that the world stands on either Torah, or Avoda, or Chessed – depending on the era.
The Sfas Emes then quotes in the name of Reb Elimelech of Lizensk: Until the time of the Arizal, the world stood on Torah. Now the world stands on Gemilus Chassadim – taking care of other people. Our job is to love each other.
It's our mission for life, our mission for the school year ahead, and quite acutely, it's our mission during the month of Elul. If we want Hashem to grant us this Chessed, we need to emulate it in our own lives as well.
A young man once came to the Klausenberger Rebbe and told him that he was thrown out of his yeshiva. The Rebbe summoned for the mashgiach of the bachur’s yeshiva and asked him why he threw this bachur out. The mashgiach told him all the terrible things that the boy had done, and concluded, “It’s impossible to keep him in the yeshiva if he does these things.”
“That’s true,” the Rebbe agreed, “but I spoke with the bachur, and he told me that he’s ready to change.”
The mashgiach said in exasperation, “This bachur promised me a thousand times that he will improve and he never keeps his word!”
The Rebbe held his white beard and said softly, “Throughout the many years of my life I promised Hashem even more than a thousand times that I will improve, and I haven’t done so yet. According to what you’re saying, I should give up. And Hashem should give up on me. But that's not how it works. As long as a Yid lives, he still has potential to change...”
Hashem should help us to internalize this message for ourselves, and emulate it for each other. Or as Viktor Frankel would say:
“If we take man as he is, we make him worse. If we take man as he should be, we make him capable of what he can be.”