The commandment that never was

The rabbis of the Talmud debated whether this commandment was actually a reality, or simply a theoretical. Rabbi Yehuda says that there never was, and never will be, an instance of the Rebellious Son. Why, then, was it written? The famous answer, "Inquire into it, and receive your reward." In other words, since the study of the Torah brings with it reward, here is another mitzvah to study for more reward.

One could ask why we need an impossible Commandment to study? You could say "Inquire into it and receive your reward" about all of the commandments of the Torah! Further, with an introduction like that, I would expect there to be volumes upon volumes of exegesis on this topic of the Rebellious Son. There aren't. There is one short chapter in the tractate Sanhedrin, just a few pages.

In a lighter way, one could explain the instruction to "inquire into it" to mean "extract so many requirements for a guilty verdict from nuances in the biblical text so as to make an actual case of this completely impossible." Indeed, here are the requirements that our sages extrapolate from these verses:

The parents must be of the same height and have the same voice. They must both be completely physically functioning, not lame, not deaf, dumb, or blind, and with both their hands. The child must be in the physical process of maturing, which the sages teach us is approximately three months before his bar mitzvah up to his bar mitzvah. The child must eat a certain amount of meat and drink a certain amount of wine.

With all of these requirements, an actual case of the Rebellious Son indeed becomes an impossibility.

There is, however, an opinion in the Talmud that this commandment was, indeed, fulfilled. Rabbi Yonatan claims that he saw it, and even sat on the rebellious son's grave. In a similar discussion, the commandment of the "Seduced City," one that worships idols in its entirety and must be completely destroyed, is debated. One Rabbi claims that it never happened and never will happen, while Rabbi Yonatan claims that it did happen, and he sat on the archaeological mound of the remains of that city.

This argument is difficult to understand. Are they arguing about historical facts? As a rule, such arguments do not take place in the Talmud. Secondly, why does Rabbi Yonatan stress that he sat on the grave of the rebellious son, and sat on the mound of the seduced city? What does this symbolize?

One could say that Rabbi Yonatan is teaching us something we all have experienced, namely, "Never say never." Ripley's Believe It or Not actually exists. But this answer leaves the question of whether they are debating historical facts in place. Can we find another approach?

The Mishna tells us that the rebellious son is judged according to his ultimate destiny. A child who meets all of these requirements will certainly, 100%, grow up to become a violent criminal. Thus, it is better that he die now, before his bar mitzvah. In that way, he will arrive at the World to Come as a righteous child, rather than as an evil adult later on.

This is also problematic, as it seems to contradict the concept of free choice and to deny this individual the opportunity of repentance. Nonetheless, the sages seem to be teaching us a lesson that, under certain extreme circumstances, a person can immunize himself from the pangs of conscience. Indeed, when it comes to the requirements of the parents, the sages are showing us that this child must have nothing to blame his bad behavior on. His parents must be exemplary, unified, capable. They must rebuke him and teach him as he grows. If all of these things are in place, and the rebellious son continues with contrary behavior, then he has demonstrated his impossibility of repentance.

This suggests to me a new explanation of this puzzling commandment. I will give a parable. A road that passes by a steep cliff must have a strong fence to keep cars from going over the edge. Such a strong fence could be constructed as to make crashing through it and going over the cliff completely impossible. The cliff, however, does not disappear and cease to exist because of the presence of the fence. It is simply impossible for any car to crash over it. Pure physics.

So it is with this commandment. A convicted rebellious son is theoretically possible, but physically and psychologically impossible. Why? Because if the parenting is perfect, as the sages require, human nature will not allow the child to fail. Only if the parents are faulty will the son become rebellious. True, he will no longer be subject to the Rebellious Son penalty, but he will be tremendous trouble to his parents and society nonetheless, and that's no good.

Thus, the commandment is not in vain. Rabbi Yehuda is urging us to inquire, and learn just how to make sure that this sad situation will never happen. By understanding this commandment, we will understand how to be excellent parents and teachers. The reward will be, as we said above, that there will never be a rebellious son, or even a slightly rebellious son, not in law and not in practice. Rabbi Yehuda tells us that, with proper parenting, there never was and never will be a failure.

And what are these lessons of proper parenting?

  1. The parents must have the same voice. This is a literal impossibility since men and women are constructed differently vocally. What it means is that they must be speaking the same message. They must be speaking it in the same fashion. When a child receives a unified message from his parents, he will learn right and wrong with clarity.
  2. The parents must be of the same height. While this is more practical, it still is rare. I believe the height mentioned here refers to spiritual height. It must be of the same stature, sharing the same religious commitments. Not just their voices must be unified, their actions must be as well.
  3. They must not be lame, blind, deaf, or dumb. In other words, they must be aware of and involved in their child's development. They must hear, see, teach, assist and accompany their child actively, throughout the formative years.
  4. The commandment applies to a child in the three months before he becomes physically mature. In other words, special attention is paid to those moments in life when a path must be chosen and when a change is to take place. Teaching children how to make important decisions is not easy, but maybe the most important lessons that they will learn.
  5. The child must eat meat and drink wine. If he does one without the other, he is not judged as a Rebellious Son. The eating of meat symbolizes lusts and passions. The drinking of wine symbolizes the silencing of the voice of conscience. Every human struggles with lusts and passions, but without the voice of conscience, there is no hope for correction.

Rabbi Yonatan, by claiming that he sat on the grave of the rebellious son, and on the mound of the seduced city, is not disagreeing with Rabbi Yehuda! The great Maharal of Prague explained Rabbi Yonatan's statement as being an allegory to the Jewish people. "My firstborn son is Israel," and our father is God, and our mother is the eternity of Israel. The Israelites sinned, they rebelled against both. The result? Exile. Jerusalem was the seduced city and was destroyed by the Romans. When Rabbi Yonatan tells us that he sat on these things, he may have used the word "sat" as a code word for "mourned." The mourner "sits shiva." All of Israel mourns the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem on the ninth of Av.

What I learn from this commentary is that, according to Rabbi Yonatan, this commandment was factual in part. Aspects of the rebellious son were our national shame in the past, and the exiles and sufferings of the Jewish people were the accompanying judgment. And so, if we inquire and improve the way that we influence each other, the way that we lift ourselves up as a nation, we shall certainly receive our reward! What will that reward be? That there will no longer be a rebellious son and a seduced city, rather a loyal son and a rebuilt city!

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