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Rebellious Son (Ben Sorer U’Moreh) Punished for Future

In reading last week’s Torah portion, I was very disturbed by the section on the rebellious son (ben sorer u’moreh; Deuteronomy 21:8:21). The Torah basically says that a child is stoned to death for not listening to his parents – and for eating meat and drinking wine – hardly acts which warrant so severe a punishment. I’m familiar with the comment that the rebellious son is killed because of the future – because his behavior is likely to get worse, so we kill him now. But doesn’t everyone have free will? How can the Torah instruct us to execute someone today for what he is likely to do – but not certain to do – tomorrow?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s a very good question. Probably the first point I should make to you is that the Talmud said that there never was a rebellious son (Sanhedrin 71a). The Torah made so many conditions which would have to be fulfilled that it’s virtually impossible that a boy would ever quality as a bona fide ben sorer u’moreh. For example, he must be at a very specific stage of early manhood (approximately between the ages of 13 and 13¼), he must steal specific quantities of meat and wine from his father, he must consume them away from home, both parents have to willingly turn him in to the authorities, the court had to have both warned and whipped him one time and he continued his behavior, and the parents must be similar in height, voice, and appearance.

If so, continues the Talmud, why did the Torah record the section of the rebellious son at all? “Study and receive reward.” It is a worthy passage to study even if it will never be carried out in practice. There are many important lessons to be learned from the section of the rebellious son, even if there will never actually be one.

At the same time, as you observe, the message itself of the Torah is difficult. Even if a boy has a terrible track record, he does have free will. How can the Torah be so sure he will be worse tomorrow that we put him to death today?

As a simple counterexample, after Hagar and Ishmael were thrown out of Abraham’s house, Ishmael nearly died of thirst in the desert until an angel appeared to Hagar and showed her a nearby spring of water (Genesis 21:9-19). The Sages state that before this occurred the angels complained to God: Why save Ishmael? Won’t his descendants commit terrible wrongs against the Jews in future generations? God answered that it was not relevant. Today Ishmael does not deserve death. He cannot be punished based on the future (Rashi to v. 17). But if so, why should the ben sorer u’moreh be any different? He is being punished for the future – and for what he might do but perhaps will not do?

My teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig explained that there is a basic difference between the two cases. The rebellious son, as the Sages depict him, had a perfect upbringing. His parents did everything right with him. This is hinted by many of the specific laws of the Torah. For example, one condition we saw above is that the parents have similar voices. As R. Zev Leff explains, the implication is that they raised him with one voice – giving him an entirely consistent upbringing, without each parent pulling the child in a different direction.

Now when a boy’s upbringing is perfect (which needless to say is only theoretical), his misbehavior is clearly his own fault. There is no hope for him; he will only get worse. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) explains, he has developed an addiction for luxuries – for meat and wine. Eventually, he will deplete his father’s resources, steal from others to satisfy his cravings, and come to murder – the near inevitable result of a life of crime. Therefore, instructs the Torah, execute him now while he is relatively innocent.

Ishmael by contrast – as virtually every other person on the planet – was more complex than that. As sinful as he was, one could argue that it was not entirely his fault. He grew up the son of a maidservant, not a part of the main household. With Isaac’s birth it was clear he would be rejected from Abraham’s inheritance and legacy. Thus, as wicked as he was and as great as his father and step-mother were, as all children he had his issues. His sins at the time were not expressions of pure evil – which would only get worse. There were other contributing factors. And so, he could not be judged based on the future – on what the angels prophetically saw his descendants would one day become. Ishmael still had free will; there was hope he would rise above the factors contributing to his wickedness and repent. He could only be judged based on whom he was then.

Thus, in conclusion, the entire section of the rebellious son is hypothetical. If theoretically everything is absolutely right about a person’s life and he sins anyway, his sin is an expression of pure evil and matters will only get worse. We put him to death before that happens. In practice, however, this can never happen. No one’s life and upbringing are so picture perfect that every sinful deed he does is completely him. There is always hope the person will improve. And so, God judges each of us based on our current behavior alone and not for anything more.

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