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The Curse And Opportunity Of The Rebellious Child – Ki Teitzei

Why do the Sages say there never was nor will there ever be a truly rebellious child?

Table for Five: Ki Teitzei

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

 And 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 drunkard.”

-Deut 21:20

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

The rebellious son is put to death. The Talmud (amidst an extensive treatment of this subject in Tractate Sanhedrin) explains that God is letting us know that if a youngster acts this way, there is no hope but that he will eventually take the lives of others in acts of banditry. Should the boy exhibit certain very specific signs of rebellion, better that he should die now whilst innocent than later after committing capital crimes. Yet strikingly, the Talmud then tells us that there never was a rebellious son, and lets us know that there never ever will be one.

The Torah only wrote this to us to give us the opportunity to benefit from learning lessons from this subject, but it’s not really something that will happen. Now what could be the message of that? Is there not already plenty of Torah to learn? What lesson are we to gain from discussion of putting to death theoretical at-risk youth? But in fact, I think that the Talmud is telling us something crucial to anyone raising children. You can never ever give up on them.

You see, there will never ever be a child who is definitely going to be wicked. There has never been such a child, nor will there ever be. Every single person has the chance to change. No behavior that you are seeing in your teen is reason to write them off. There is hope for all of our children. We may never give up.

Rabbi Pinchas Winston,

The Talmud says that a wise person is one who can see what is being born (Tamid 32a). Not just born, but how it will “grow up,” meaning to what it will probably lead. The commandment of killing the “rebellious son” teaches a similar message (even if it was never carried out).

A ben sorrer umoreh is not killed because he has already done something that warrants the death penalty. He is killed because he has done things that seem to indicate that he will do such things in the future. The Beis Din kills him now while he is still “meritorious,” before he becomes guilty of the death penalty. But what if the boy grows up and matures nicely? What if he leaves behind his troubling ways, as so many other “rebellious” children have done over the ages? If saving one soul is like saving an entire world, isn’t it worth the risk to see how this one turns out too? What if the concern does not apply to this son?

The Torah says assume that it does and go with the signs. And not just in the case of the rebellious son, but in life in general. Many bad things have happened because people have disregarded the signs of where they were going. They suffered from cognitive dissonance, psychological conflict that results from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously. As they say, “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Mashpia, writer, businessman

The “Wayward and Rebellious Son” precept is so outlandish that some Talmudic rabbis say (Sanhedrin 71b), “This commandment never occurred, nor will it ever occur in the future! If so, why is it in the Torah at all? Expound on the Torah’s passages and receive the reward.”

Is this just a scholarly pursuit? What is to be learned from something that can’t happen? Underlying this law are lessons for parents to be gleaned regarding their critical role in raising their children. Each child is a tabula rasa, a clean slate. Parents need to introspect into their role in their child’s rebelliousness.

“They shall say, our son is wayward and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice (exact translation); he is a glutton and a drunkard.” (21:20) The precept of the “rebellious son” applies only if his father and mother speak in the same voice. This means both parents must take an active role in educating their child and must relate to their child with an equal sense of seriousness, and most importantly, both parents must convey to him the same message and the same value system.

Only if parents have met these criteria are they blameless if their child becomes rebellious. But if the parents have not worked together harmoniously in bringing up their child, then the fact that the child has become unruly may not reflect his innate depravity, but rather a dysfunctional upbringing. Change these factors and the child might well improve.

Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Assistant Rabbi, Temple Beth Am, LA

Both parents must willingly present him to the community for what will result in punishment. But we’re not told what anyone might have done to prevent the development of such a person, or what was tried privately before going public.

The 20th century Rebbe of Piaseczna wrote in his singular work, Chovat HaTalmidim, “It is not enough to just teach the lad that he is obligated to listen to the educator, and nothing more. The main point is to bring this opinion into his heart: To know that he – the child himself – is the main educator. Rather, he is the sprout of God’s planting in the garden of Israel.” Though the quote continues to say the responsibility is on the father and rabbi to teach the child, the child must own his progress and success, as well as his failing. Our job as parents, teachers and community is to make the child feel supported and safe when questioning, exploring, and sharing new learning. Public shaming will ostracize and brand the child, dooming him.

Proverbs 22:6 reminds us to teach children individualistically, connecting with their abilities and interests, so that they will not grow disloyal to the Teaching. The same Hebrew word is used for “disloyal” in Proverbs and our Torah verse, reminding us of the lofty obligations of raising our community’s children. We must prepare our family to sprout in God’s garden. We must offer an attentive and loving first chance and then a second chance!

Lori Shapiro, Rabbi, Artistic Director/Open Temple

Today’s social media influencer is tomorrow’s tossed aside child unpacking a public display of thoughtless behavior. Torah’s strident proscription for the rebellious and wayward child bears wisdom for today’s parenting. The rabbis seek to justify his actions as being aberrant and problematic; Rabbi Bachya admonishes: “Parents’ love of God must supersede their love of their children; if the Torah commands it, they must be ready even to hand their son over to the court.” Parenting styles encouraging “your child to find his own interests and pursue them” seemingly present as anathema to Torah wisdom. But are they?

The rabbinic stridency towards the “wayward and rebellious child” serve as a cautionary tale reminding us of our parenting responsibility. Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching (Taoism), is credited for stating: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words, watch your words, for they become actions, watch your actions, for they become habits, watch your habits, for they become character, watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Parents are the gatekeepers, planting the seeds of thought, nurturing the value of words, seasonally modeling habits, harvesting character in community and walking a destiny that becomes our children’s inheritance. As adult children, parents must embody both the self-discipline of our seasoned relationship with our own inner-rebellion as we serve as cultivators of awareness for our children, guiding their curiosity towards godliness, lest their social media handles lead them into acts of rebellion and intemperance and into the contemporary court of public scrutiny.

With thanks to Rabbi Elchanan ShoffRabbi Pinchas Winston, Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, and Lori Shapiro.

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.

How Do We Bear Grief During This Time?

The Butterfly Series creates a space for us to engage in conversations about our rebirth as we evolve from a year of pandemic and disruption. In this installment we featured Hope Edelman, bereavement expert and New York Times bestselling author of The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss. Hope helps us address our feelings of loss. Loss for all that never happened; a lingering sense of emptiness for the celebrations disrupted, those who died that we were not able to memorialize with our communities and a general sense of malaise.


It’s Really Bad…

…and It’s Opon Us.

This week I offer a longer than usual email; please stay with it, as the message concerns Each and Every One of Us.

The Los Angeles homeless population proliferates like a plague of human depravity. While driving down Venice Boulevard, I watched as traffic slowed down and swerved to avoid an unkempt, elderly man unsuccessfully navigate his wheelchair across the street. I stopped my car in the middle of the street, stopped traffic, and moved him to safety. Asking where he lived, he pointed to an encampment nearby. I wondered why I was the only one to stop, why we have elderly individuals living in encampments and how each and every one of us can convert our hearts to say, “It is upon me to help in any way I can.”

Feeling utter futility and tasting tears on my burning cheeks, with a heavy heart I returned to my car and drove to my doctor’s appointment.

Mashal (Allegory/Story):

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”

About a month ago, while riding my bicycle through Venice, I happened upon a woman sitting outside of the Oakwood Rec Center and began a conversation with her. I learned that Germaine was living in a homeless shelter that was about to close. I invited her to share her story at the Passover Seder Crawl, and after that event, many of our hearts turned to find a solution for Germaine, and her son, Chris. Open Temple’s Electric Starfish Project began as a collective of individuals who circled around one houseless individual and advocated for them through the labyrinthine system of social services. We found inspiration in the above essay from American anthropologist Loren Eiseley entitled “The Star Thrower”. Eiseley was also the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and History of Science at the UPenn. Considered a “modern day Thoreau”, his virtuous work connects the world of social science, culture and science as a call to humanize our civilization.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, asks us to hear “the holy utterances” in our midst, and cultivate justice as an essential quality of character (or middah/virtue). It reminds us that justice does not dwell in the savage mind, but requires a cerebral calisthenic that elevates our consciousness to seek and create justice from the chaos and ugliness that is also a part of the human condition, literally a ladder of neurons moving from the more primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, to our pre-frontal cortex. Eiseley, and the scribes of Parshat Emor, whisper to us from the beyond: “Do Something with those emotions of anger, frustration, indignance and futility. Go Find Your Starfish.”

The above photo, “Bashert”, was emailed to Open Temple from Chris and Germaine Montgomery as an expression of gratitude for our work moving them from houseless to home. The word “Bashert, or Beshert,” means “soulmate,” and most commonly refers to our fated life mate. But, as any Starfish washed upon the shore can attest, one simple act of kindness can turn the course of fate for another with an impact resetting the course of history.

Germaine received the key to her new apartment this week, and sent this text:

“I’m surfing channels and what’s on…Yentl. You are a blessing to us. Thanks so much. Now I can rest my mind. Signed lease, got keys. Looking for stuff to make it home now…I appreciate all the support. Thank you Open Temple.”

Germaine returns to the sea of her life; but, what about the elderly man on Venice Boulevard? What about the encampment near Erewhon, the homeless on Ocean Front Walk… and on and on and on. It is clear that our local, county and state government are not solving this problem at a pace that provides immediate relief. Sure, we can continue to move about Los Angeles with our hearts dissatisfied with the lack of solutions and other feelings of futility or disempowerment. Or, we can seek-out our own Bashert.
Just One.

Beachcomb Your Starfish:

Open Temple Electric Starfish Project circles NOW FORMING throughout Venice and the Westside. We join forces with other local agencies and take justice into our own hearts and hands. Enter into the next cohort of OT Electric Starfish Project, and find a way to help the humans on our streets by letting them know that They Matter:


Pandemic Fatigue and Reopening: A Morality Tale

The Butterfly Series creates a space for us to engage in conversations about our rebirth as we evolve from a year of pandemic and disruption. In this installment we featured Dr. Cara Natterson, one of the founders of 10th Street Pediatric in Santa Monica. Dr. Cara is on the vanguard of re-opening and vaccination conversations, vaccinating children conversations, and spends a lot of time advising schools throughout LA about how to do what comes next on the heels of pandemic.


The Butterfly Series: Conversations for our Rebirth

On Thursday, April 8, Open Temple invites all of us in conversation about how to relaunch into life responsibly. Physician Cara Natterson, who is on the vanguard of school reopenings in Los Angeles, shares with us her frontline insights, important data about children and the future of COVID Times. For all of us wondering, “Just how the heck do we do this right?”, this important program provides a roadmap.

There is a concept in Hasidut that considers the mystery of why a butterfly must first live the life of a caterpillar, and then spend some time in the dark prison-cell of the pupa, instead of coming out as a butterfly straight from its mother’s egg.

The rabbis question: Perhaps The Creator meant to tell the butterfly, fluttering by and seemingly so proud of its sparking colors: “Don’t be so proud, butterfly! Remember where you came from…”

We are all eager for life to begin again. And yet, we are humbled. Many are broken. There is unresolved grief, loss and still the threat of virus endures. As all of us are eager to “return to normal life,” it is important to remember that the transformation we have all been through is messy and unresolved. How we act now is really a moral question.
Open Temple created a 3-part series that will help all of us ease through these times with community, education and wisdom.

The Butterfly Series creates a space for all of us to consider this evolution:

CATERPILLAR: Pandemic Fatigue and Reopening: A Morality Tale
CHRYSALIS: Isolation and Darkness: How Do We Bear Grief During this Time?
BUTTERFLY: Spreading our Wings in the Wave of Disruption.

Pandemic Fatigue and Reopening: A Morality Tale
Thursday, April 8 @ 7:00 pm
Featuring Dr. Cara Natterson, Worry Proof MD
Sign up for online access

How Do We Bear Grief During this Time?
Thursday, May 6 @ 7:00 pm
Featuring Hope Edelman, Bereavement Expert
Sign up for online access

Spreading our Wings in the Age of Disruption
Friday, June 4 @ 5:30 pm
Featuring Dr. Denise Berger, Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility
Live at the Electric Lodge/Open Temple Parking Lot (reservations available soon)