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Can You Forgive Your Child?

How Do You Deal with Children Who Put You through the Wringer?

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    4265 views
  • August 24, 2023
  • |
  • 7 Elul 5783
  • Comment

Class Summary:

The law in this week’s portion concerning a wayward son seems absurd and horrific. A death sentence for what? For eating meat and drinking wine? For stealing food? Isn’t this punishment rather excessive?  He is only a 13-year-old kid?  And did his offenses really merit capital punishment? 

The Mishnah and Talmud, quoted in Rashi on our portion, give this answer: He is not being punished for his current sins. Rather, given his outrageous current behavior, the Torah testifies that it is inevitable that he will grow up to be a robber and murderer.  So better to kill him now, before he murders other people and before he destroys his own soul. The patterns of his behavior demonstrate that he is doomed to a life of inevitable evil. Get rid of him now.

Yet this is absurd. All of Judaism is based on the fact that even a sinner can repent. Certainly, a 13-year-old boy who is at this point not killing yet, certainly he may change his ways. How can we be certain that he will become a murderer? An axiom in Judaism is, “Nothing stands in the way of Teshuvah.” And here we say that a 13-year-old troubled boy is destined to grow into a monster? Why? 

True, as the Talmud says, this story never happened nor will it happen. But how are we to understand the law in theory? What is a lesson the Torah is trying to impart in this law?

There is a beautiful answer given by the Shem Mishmuel, authored by Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856-1926), the Rebbe of Sochotshov, Poland.  The answer contains one of the most critical lessons for our day and age in terms of how parents and educators deal with children who are difficult, challenging, and often take us through the wringer.

In loving memory of Rachamim ben Aziz Sani Halevi. And in honor of the Sani Family, and relatives

The Lawyer

A grade school teacher was asking students what their parents did for a living. "Tim, you be first," she said. "What does your mother do all day?"

Tim stood up and proudly said, "She's a doctor."

"That's wonderful. How about you, Amie?"

Amie shyly stood up, scuffed her feet, and said, "My father is an electrician.

"Thank you, Amie," said the teacher. "What about your father, Billy?"

Billy proudly stood up and announced, "My daddy steals from people and drinks a lot."

The teacher was aghast and promptly changed the subject to geography. Later that day she went to Billy's house and rang the bell.

Billy's father answered the door. The teacher explained what his son had said and asked if there might be some logical explanation.

Billy's father said, "I'm actually a lawyer. But how can I explain a thing like that to a seven-year-old?"

Why Death?

The law in this week’s portion concerning a wayward son seems absurd and horrific.

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, and does not listen to them when they discipline him; then his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He does not obey our voice. He is a profligate and a drunkard.'

“Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.”

How are we to understand this Torah passage? First, are we to believe that parents would actually take up the Torah’s advice and have their son killed if he acts like a monster in his teens!

Can you imagine a Jewish mother sending her son to the High Court to be punished: "Here, Ben, I want you should take along these cookies I baked for you; and don’t forget to wear your cardigan; it gets cold in the death chamber."

Besides, a death sentence for what? For eating meat and drinking wine? For stealing food? Isn’t this punishment excessive? He is only a 13-year-old kid? And did his offenses really merit capital punishment? 

The Mishnah and Talmud, quoted in Rashi on our portion, gives this answer:[1]

He is not being punished for his current sins. Rather, given his outrageous current behavior, the Torah testifies that it is inevitable that he will grow up to be a robber and murderer. So better to kill him now, before he murders other people and before he destroys his own soul. The patterns of his behavior demonstrate that he is doomed to a life of inevitable evil. Let him die an innocent man.

Yet this seems absurd. All of Judaism is based on the idea that even a sinner can repent. Certainly, a 13-year-old boy who is at this point not killing yet, certainly he may change his ways. How can we be certain that he will become a murderer?

An axiom in Judaism is, “Nothing stands in the way of Teshuvah.” The most evil Jewish king, Menashe, was accepted as a baal-teshuva.[2] And here we say that a 13-year-old troubled boy is destined to grow into a monster? Why? 

True, as the Talmud says,[3] this story never happened nor will it happen. This Torah law is theory, not practical. But how are we to understand the law in theory? What is a lesson the Torah is trying to impart in this law?

Forgiveness

There is a beautiful answer given by the Shem Mishmuel, authored by Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856-1926), the Rebbe of Sochotshov, Poland. (He was the son of the Avnei Nezer, Rabbi Avraham Borenstein, and grandson of the Kotzker Rebbe).

He raises one more question. The Talmud says,[4] that at any point, a wayward son whose parents forgive him is forgiven and not punished.[5]

But wait. We don’t kill the boy because of what he did to his parents.[6] We kill him, as the Talmud explains because the Torah testifies that he is destined to become a killer. So what does it help that his parents forgive him?

The Holy Chain

The answer contains one of the most critical lessons for our day and age in terms of how parents and educators deal with children who are difficult, challenging, and often take us through the wringer.[7]

Every child, even the greatest menace, is inherently holy and good, Divine and sacred. For each of them carries the genes of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—each of them has a Jewish soul, which is eternally connected to the Divine.

To reveal that connection, a father and a mother must keep the bond with their children strong. When we sever our relationship with our children, even if we have good reason to do so, we deprive them of the ability to experience themselves as part of the golden, unbreakable chain from Abraham to this very day.

Says the Shem Mishmuel: When the son feels the love inherent in his parents’ willingness to forgive him, despite all of his misdeeds, this keeps him connected to his roots. And since his roots are so deep and sacred, there is now strong hope that he will find the ability to transform himself.

If the parents do not forgive their child, they do not allow him to forgive himself and start his life anew. They ensure that he continues in his destructive path. Conversely, the moment they forgive him internally, the moment they can accept their child and love him despite his terrible and heartbreaking failures, they now allow him to discover his own spiritual power, which is deeper than all of his failings and trauma.

 Never Disconnect

This is the great message the Torah is teaching us. Never ever disconnect from your child, even if it is not easy. Sometimes we are compelled to break the connection, to sever the bond, to alienate him or her. It is simply too painful to be in a relationship.

But the Torah is telling us, this is the primary reason he will never be able to come back. You need to learn to forgive your children, to see the infinite light hidden in them, that light you saw in the child when he emerged from your womb as innocent and angelic as ever. Yes, there have been disappointments, perhaps betrayal, shame, and serious misdeeds. Your child is broken. So what does he (or she) need to find the stamina to repair himself? He needs to be able to believe in his soul, in his future, in his goodness.

How can we help him achieve that? If we can love him, if we can forgive him, if we can show him that he is not a worthless, helpless case, but a particle of the Divine, a ray of infinity, a fragment of G-d in this world.

Keeping him connected to the chain, will allow him to see himself, ultimately, in the context of a 4,000-year chain, of which he is the next rung.

Imperfection

My brother Rabbi Simon Jacobson, author of Toward a Meaningful Life, shared with me the following story:

A number of years ago, at one of my weekly classes I was discussing the fact that each one of us was sent to this Earth with an indispensable mission. And this mission imbues each human being with unique qualities, all the necessary faculties we need to fulfill our respective mission. Even if someone is weak or deficient in one area, even one born with a “handicap,” this same person is blessed with other strengths that compensate for and allow this individual to realize his or her calling. Some of these strengths may often be less obvious than others, and then it is our sacred responsibility to help uncover these deeper resources. Nothing is holier and more dignified than to help a person discover hidden potential, allowing him to actualize his unique life calling.

After my class, a striking young man approached me. As he got closer I saw that he suffered from some motor complications. He asked to speak with me privately. After everyone left we sat down, and he began to tell me his story. His words came out slowly, due to a speech impediment, and he shared with me that he was born with a rare disease that affected his nervous system, which also impaired his mental capacity and growth. He later discovered that his parents gave him away as a newborn, after hearing that he was diagnosed with severe mental handicaps. Over the years, it turned out that the diagnosis was not completely accurate, though he still suffered from many problems. At that point, his parents were not willing or unable to handle him and they chose to have no contact with him.

His parents were very wealthy and prominent, and they provided that he be cared for in a quality institution for children with special needs. But they never came to visit him, and for all practical purposes, he was brought up as an orphan. A “privileged orphan,” he was told. All his physical needs met, except for the most important one: Unconditional love from nurturing parents.

As much as I tried, I could not completely control my feelings from pouring out for his soul. However, more powerful than all his pain was the refined light shining out of this young man. He was simply an exquisite human being. With a special charm, clearly the result of years of struggle, he had emerged with a very rare type of warmth, which basked everything around him in a soft glow.

“And tonight,” he tells me, “you said that each one of us has a unique mission despite appearances. I too, like the fellow in your story, lack certain abilities. But, unlike the wealthy man in your story, I do not know what strengths I have in return. Can you help me discover my special qualities?”…

I was taken. He wasn’t aware of his own level of refinement. This tortured man could give more love and kindness than most people I know, yet he was crying for help.

What can I say, my heart went out to him in the deepest possible way, and we began to communicate regularly. He would attend many of my classes and I would converse with him about many things, and he would always elicit in me kindness I did not know I had. From time to time, he would address his own feelings of rejection and his desire to confront his parents. He had tracked them down but was terrified of contacting them.

Mischievous thoughts began to creep into my brain about contacting them myself. But what would I say? Who am I to call them? I tried not to be judgmental; who knows what they have endured; what caused them to give up and desert their own child? But is it being judgmental to ask whether any parent has such a right – no matter what the excuse? And is it my role to be the one that confronts these parents?

After a few months of hesitation, I got the number and I finally made the call.

“Hello, good afternoon, this is Simon Jacobson. I am a friend of your son and would like to speak to you about him.”

Deathly silence on the other end of the line. What do I say now?

“Hello, hi may we speak for a few moments?”

“What can I do for you?” was the brisk and cold response.

“I know your son. He is an extraordinary man and I thought that would make you proud.”

Click. The father hung up the phone.

What do I do now? Call back? I decided to wait. A few days later I tried again. This time his secretary did not let the call through, so I left a message saying that “this matter is very personal and can have profound long-term consequences for good or for bad.”

I tried again the next day and what do you know, he took my call. Now what? I simply said: “Please understand. I am not in the business of meddling. I am not being critical or judgmental. I simply feel from the depths of my heart that it would be life-transforming for you and your wife to meet your son.”

“We don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to go there, we did what we felt was best for everyone.”

“I am sure you did. Still, today, now, your son has grown to be a tremendous soul. He needs to see you and you need to see him. Please consider that.”

“I’ll get back to you.”

He didn’t. But now I was on the warpath. So I called again. He did apologize for not getting back – almost making me respect his cordiality until I remembered why we were here in the first place – and said that his wife would not be able to do it. Too uncomfortable. He mumbled something about having “long ago buried this.” But I persisted.

“So then I’ll arrange for you to meet your son without your wife.”

“No, not yet.”

After a few months, he finally relented, and together with his wife, we scheduled the fateful meeting that everybody dreaded. At their insistence, which surprised me, they wanted me to be present at the meeting, I figured, to serve as a bit of a buffer.

The big day came. We met at their lavish home in the living room, tea and biscuits on the table, all choreographed to the tee, except for the emotions that would be released.

Oh man, this was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences I would ever endure, and I wondered what havoc did I wreak, but it was too late. Here we were. Initially, everybody was cordial, even detached, like strangers meeting about buying a house. “What do you do?” “Where have you traveled?” “Are you a Yankee fan?” “How’s the weather?” – you get the idea? After sitting silent, trying to be invisible and letting things take their natural, biological course (or so I hoped), I finally piped in and said the first serious statement of the evening. “Your son told me his story. He must have a lot of anger inside of him, but he hasn’t shown it to me, or maybe not even to himself. You must have many feelings yourself. I really don’t belong here, but since I am here allow me to say that your son is one of the most beautiful people I know. I have discovered through him new horizons of human dignity and the capacity of the soul to shine in this harsh world. I think it would be truly life-changing for you to get to know each other.”

Before I stood up to leave, our hero, turned to his parents and uttered a few words that could melt any heart. With a stutter and a bit slowly – his speech was impeded, as you may recall – he began:

“Mumma, Puppa” – I could tell that he worked long and hard to get those words out (he never referred to his parents that way when he spoke with me).

“Mumma, Puppa… I, I am not perfect. You, too, are not perfect. I have forgiven you. Can you forgive me?”

We all burst into tears. I made my way out the door, leaving them alone…

“Mumma, Puppa… I, I am not perfect. You, too, are not perfect. I have forgiven you. Can you forgive me?” Can you forgive me for not being perfect, their handicapped child asked. Can you forgive me for putting into your life a child who is less than perfect?...

Can you forgive your child for not being perfect? Can you forgive your loved one for not being perfect? Can you forgive yourself for being imperfect?
_____________________

[1] רש"י כי תצא: בן סורר ומורה אינו חייב, עד שיגנוב ויאכל תרטימר בשר וישתה חצי לוג יין. שנאמר (פסוק כ) זולל וסבא, ונאמר (משלי כג, כ) אל תהי בסובאי יין בזוללי בשר למו. ובן סורר ומורה נהרג על שם סופו, הגיעה תורה לסוף דעתו, סוף שמכלה ממון אביו ומבקש למודו ואינו מוצא, ועומד בפרשת דרכים ומלסטם את הבריות, אמרה תורה ימות זכאי ואל ימות חייב:

[2] Rambam Laws of Teshuvah ch. 2-3. See there ch. 7

[3] Sanhedrin 71

[4] Sanhedrin 88b

[5] סנהדרין פח, ב: בן סורר ומורה שרצו אביו ואמו למחול לו מוחלין לו.

[6] As the Talmud says, a daughter can never become a “sorer umoreh,” it only applies to a male.

[7] שם משמואל כי תצא תרע"א: ש"ס סנהדרין (פ"ח.) בן סורר ומורה שרצו אביו ואמו למחול לו מוחלין לו. ויש להבין הלוא אינו נהרג על מה שהמרה נגדם אלא ע"ש סופו שסופו ללסטם את הבריות, א"כ למה תועיל מחילתם.

ונראה דהנה יש להתבונן במאמרם ז"ל (שם ע"ב) הגיעה תורה לסוף דעתו וכו' הלוא כמה רשעים גמורים שעשו כל התועבות שבעולם ולבסוף עשו תשובה, ושמא יהי' זה כמותם, הלוא לא ננעלו דרכי תשובה לפני שום אדם וכמאה"כ (תהלים צ') תשב אנוש עד דכא ודרשו ז"ל (ירושלמי חגיגה פ"ב ה"א) עד דכדוכה של נפש מקבלין:

אך נראה דהנה איתא במד"ת (פ' האזינו סי' ד') שתשובה מועלת לישראל ולא לעכו"ם. ונראה דמחמת שישראל הם בני אברהם יצחק ויעקב, שהם בעצם נפשות טהורות וטובות רק שבמקרה נתלכלכו בעבירות, אבל כשעושה תשובה שוב מתעוררת בו הנקודה השרשית האחוזה בשלשלת הקודש עד האבות הקדושים ושופעת בו רוח חיים חדשים ממקור ישראל, ובודאי תתמיד תשובתו וישאר נאמן להשי"ת ותורתו, אבל עכו"ם מאחר שנתקלקלו ונכרתה חיותם כענף הנכרת ממקום חיותו שוב אין לו תקנה, ואף כשיעשה תשובה בודאי לא תתמיד ויחזור לסורו.

הכלל שכל עצמה של תשובה שמועלת היא מפני ההשתלשלות עד האבות, ממילא זה שהוא סורר ומורה נפסק חיבורו מאביו ואמו ושוב אין לו חיבור בשלשלת הקודש בודאי שלא יעשה תשובה, ואף אם יעשה לא תתמיד ויחזור לסורו, וסופו ללסטם את הבריות, אבל כשאביו ואמו מוחלין לו הנה הוא עדיין נקשר בשלשלת הקודש, שוב אינו נהרג, שיכול להיות שעוד ישוב בתשובה שלימה.

Please leave your comment below!

  • A

    Abe -2 years ago

    But how would you explain this to someone who is not part of this "chain"? A non-Jew etc.

    Also, you don't take into account that perhaps--as is the case so many times--that this rebellious child is so broken because of the parents, not despite them. The story you tell of your brother is beautiful (and I hope you don't mind me using it in a sermon), but is unique to that set of parents who couldn't deal with a "special needs" child. We are not talking about a child who is dangerous to the world. On the contrary. In that case, yes, the parent has to "forgive" the child for not being perfect.

    What about all the people walking the earth whose parents have been the impetus and cause for them being Zolel V'soveh? In those cases, the child has to forgive the parents instead of the reverse, and, usually, that can only come about by the parents asking forgiveness from the child. That, unfortunately, hardly happens.

    In that case, perhaps it's the parents who should be "put to death," as well, for the damage that they wrought on the universe for being responsible for raising human beings who are a danger to society.

    In other words, the Torah is taking the route of the "parents are always right" (purportedly because they sired this child?), and not that they are responsible for the chaos in the first place.

    Thanks and Shabbat Shalom,

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

    • Anonymous -2 years ago

      1. As with most ethical, pedagogical, and moral themes in Torah, they apply to all peoples, to some degree or another, to each tribe and nation in its unique way. As in Pirkei Avos, "cherishes is each human carved in the Divine image." Every person has a soul, a spark of G-d, but not the same soul. The Jewish soul has its uniqueness.

      In this way, all these themes apply to each person, albeit in different languages sometimes.
      In this case, for the non-Jew, we might apply the idea that repair comes from the inner Divine image in which he/she is carved or the like.

      Note: In Shem Mishmuel quoted in footnotes he excludes "Akum," Ovdei Kochavim. But of course, that too has its time and place, for we know that at the times of Moshiach, the entire world, all nations, will embrace the code of oneness.

      2. Of course you are correct. That is not the subject of this particular mitzvah, and hence this particular essay. This is addressing the case of the parents who tried to do the right thing. CF. Rav Hirsh on the idea of both parents needing to have a single voice, for only that proves that they are not at fault.
      The tragic cases you raise are absolutely part of our reality and story, and must be addressed in a different essay, and are addressed in other parts of the Torah.

      It should be noted that the Torah introduced the idea that we do not own our children, unlike ancient cultures. This became clear in the story of the Akeida -- your child does not belong to you, but to Hashem. And in Jewish law, if a parent kills a child, he will be put to death (pending of course the circumstances, the court proceedings, etc.) If a parent beats a child intentionally, they are obligated to pay "nezek, tzaar, repu, sheves and boshes" (again, some of these costs are pending circumstances). This can add up to many millions and millions.

      Sending my love and blessings for gut shabbos and shanah tovah umesukah.
      YYJ 

      Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Anonymous -2 years ago

    Beautiful!!! Thank you!!! This gives me some power to connect to my internal beauty!!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • RG

    Rochelle Greenwood -3 years ago

    Very powerful message.  Thank you

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Ki Seitzei

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • August 24, 2023
  • |
  • 7 Elul 5783
  • |
  • 4265 views
  • Comment

In loving memory of Rachamim ben Aziz Sani Halevi. And in honor of the Sani Family, and relatives

Class Summary:

The law in this week’s portion concerning a wayward son seems absurd and horrific. A death sentence for what? For eating meat and drinking wine? For stealing food? Isn’t this punishment rather excessive?  He is only a 13-year-old kid?  And did his offenses really merit capital punishment? 

The Mishnah and Talmud, quoted in Rashi on our portion, give this answer: He is not being punished for his current sins. Rather, given his outrageous current behavior, the Torah testifies that it is inevitable that he will grow up to be a robber and murderer.  So better to kill him now, before he murders other people and before he destroys his own soul. The patterns of his behavior demonstrate that he is doomed to a life of inevitable evil. Get rid of him now.

Yet this is absurd. All of Judaism is based on the fact that even a sinner can repent. Certainly, a 13-year-old boy who is at this point not killing yet, certainly he may change his ways. How can we be certain that he will become a murderer? An axiom in Judaism is, “Nothing stands in the way of Teshuvah.” And here we say that a 13-year-old troubled boy is destined to grow into a monster? Why? 

True, as the Talmud says, this story never happened nor will it happen. But how are we to understand the law in theory? What is a lesson the Torah is trying to impart in this law?

There is a beautiful answer given by the Shem Mishmuel, authored by Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856-1926), the Rebbe of Sochotshov, Poland.  The answer contains one of the most critical lessons for our day and age in terms of how parents and educators deal with children who are difficult, challenging, and often take us through the wringer.

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