Last Shabbat, we read the complicated obligation found in Parashat Ki Teitzei that instructs us to deal with a rebellious child accordingly. In Deuteronomy 21:18, we read:
Ki yiyeh l’ish ben Sorer u’moreh eineinu shome’ah b’kol uv’kol imo, v’yisru oto v’lo yishma aleihem… urgamuhu kol anshei iro va’avanim v’meit.
If a man has a Ben Sorer u’moreh – a rebellious and defiant child – who does not listen to his parents and does not obey, they should bring him to the center of town and declare to the elders of the town, this son is insubordinate. Then the men of the town should stone him to death.
The Torah clearly states that if a child is rebellious, he should be killed. While the rabbis go out of their way to make sure this never happens, we have to deal with the problematic idea of a such a punishment being part of our scriptural core.
How do you describe a rebellious child? Is this someone who defies authority? Someone who cheats? Steals? Lies? Someone who does not respect elders? I believe that the redactors of the Torah were concerned with encouraging a new generation to rise up and question authority and leadership. Moses had dealt with an enter people question his leadership and God’s law, not to mention an attempt by Korach to overthrow him as leader. Prevent such rebellion is understandable. Yet, I think we miss the goal of rebellious teens. They questions authority because they search for deeper meaning. They question authority because they see injustice and refuse to continue to go about their everyday lives accepting what has become reality.
We deal with the struggle of rebellious children – or as most of us call them, teenagers – throughout our tradition. In fact, at the Passover Seder, in the Haggadah, we read about the four children. We are taught to reward the wise one, explain in modest terms to the simple child, and introduce the one who does not know how to ask to the customs and rituals of the holiday experience. But we chastise the wicked child, the rebellious child, the rasha. Yet, what is so rebellious about what this child asks?
The wicked child asks “What does this mean to you?” The parent is offended that the child says “to you” and not “to me or to us.” The child does not include himself or herself in the experience. But there is nothing rebellious about what the wicked child asks. There is nothing evil. The child is simply challenging the status quo, challenging authority, looking for deeper meaning, hoping to create impactful change. We teach our children to think, bit not what to think. So a child questioning the status quo, a child committed to changing society, is something that we should celebrate, not condemn.
A couple of years ago, Civil Rights Leader and Congressman John Lewis was given an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary at commencement. In his speech at JTS commencement upon receiving his honorary degree, Representative Lewis charged the students to get into trouble. He said:
“You must go out and find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. You must play a role in helping to make our country, helping to make our world, a better place.”
During the Hebrew month of Elul, during these weeks leading up to the High Holy Days, we focus on what we can do in the year ahead to be better versions of ourselves. However, often, our reflection is self-introspection. We focus on our own shortcomings. We focus on our own action and inaction. We focus on what we do or don’t do, on how we can change. However, part of this month, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, which tradition refers to as the Birthday of the World, must be about more than just how we can change ourselves. It must be about how we can change the world.
It must be about how we can, as Representative Lewis said, get into a little bit of trouble, good trouble. It must be about how we can, every now and again be a ben sorer u’moreh. Maybe we are supposed to be the ben sorer u’moreh. Maybe we should act like the rasha who sought deeper meaning and change. Then, and only then, will we not only change ourselves in the year ahead, but also change the world.
- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky