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Ki Tetzei(Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

Crime and Punishment

Rabbi Paul Seiger, former chaplain at a Missouri prison, tells the tragic but true story of a homicide that might have been prevented. It seems the victim had received a phone call from a tormentor who said that a "contract had been put out on his life." Having no doubt about the seriousness of the threat, the man went to the police. They said they were unable to offer him protection. Exactly one week later he was murdered.

Up until the recent passage of laws against "stalking," there was relatively little a person could do to protect himself against such threats. Even today, there are still great limitations to the law. Civil law does not allow for "pre-emptive punishments." In fact, in making stalking a crime, legislators upheld the principle that you cannot punish someone before he has committed a crime; they simply defined stalking as a "crime."

But let's imagine that it were possible to know in advance that someone was going to commit a crime. Would it be right to lock such a person up?

This question stands at the heart of the "rebellious son," a topic featured prominently in this week's Torah portion. The rebellious son is a child who - despite discipline from his parents - chooses to follow an evil path. He abandons all semblance of moral rectitude and even steals money from his parents to spend on gluttonous behavior. Past actions have brought him to punishment by the court ... yet he refuses to change his ways.

Despairing of all hope of rehabilitation, the parents come before the court to declare their child to be a "ben sorrer u'morre" - a rebellious son. If, after investigation, the court finds that he is indeed a rebellious son, the child is put to death.

The seemingly incredible harshness of this punishment is discussed by the Torah commentaries. To begin with, it should be made clear that the entire issue of the rebellious son is a theoretical one. The Talmud makes this point by saying that "there never was nor will there ever be" a child put to death based on this law. There are, in fact, such detailed specifications for implementing this law that it is virtually impossible for there to ever be a rebellious son.

If so, why does the Torah dedicate an entire section to this topic? The commentaries explain it is to teach us a number of important lessons.

On a basic level, the Torah is emphasizing the deep responsibility parents have in raising their children. The Torah is warning that if a child is not disciplined properly, he can eventually fall into criminal activities. Though there are obviously a multitude of factors, the truth is that a child who goes astray was most probably lacking some key element in his early childhood education.

Rashi, quoting the Talmud, explains this topic in a deeper way: The harsh punishment is not for crimes already committed - but to prevent future more serious criminal acts. Continuing in his evil ways, the rebellious son will eventually become a highwayman, stealing and assaulting people. Rather than allowing him to die as an older man with the blood of his victims on his hands, the Torah says that he should die now before he victimizes others and casts terrible evil on his own soul.

On a practical level, human beings do not have the foreordained knowledge to know with certainty that a person is going to commit a crime. Thus for us, preemptory punishments are inappropriate. But, the Zohar says, it is different with God Who has ultimate knowledge. Oftentimes God brings hardships upon a person, not as punishment for a past crime, but as a preventive measure against future wrongdoing. Both our past and potential future is revealed before God.

As the High Holidays approach, this is an important lesson to keep in mind.

Published: January 16, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Sue Schulze, August 28, 2009 2:06 PM

theoretical or not

Whether this is a theoretical case or not, the whole point is to teach that when you have a child that is not disciplined, he can reach that point of no return. I think that is the important lesson here. In our human eyes we see only that the death of a child is horrible, but if we could see with God's eyes, to be with him instead of leading a life of corruption and harming others would certainly be much better. It is the underlying reasoning in this verse that is important. If you love your children, do your best to lead them in the right direction.

(2) Raphael Harris, August 24, 2007 3:37 AM

It did happen.

There is a mistaken notion that the Ben Sorer Umorer was a theoretical case that never happened or never could happen. Actually that's not true. The Gemora quotes one opinion that it could never happen but the next opinion is that in fact it did happen and that is the final authoratative opinion based on eye witness testimony.

(1) YechielAaron, September 3, 2006 11:08 PM

Very nice Devar Torah. However please understand that many people will be confused by your last parograph into incorrectly thinking that all their problems are punishments by Hashem for sins that they will committ in the future. Thank-you

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