The laws concerning the rebellious child appear at the start of this weeks' Parsha. The rebellious child is peculiar because he is punished not for what he has done in the past but for what he will do in the future. Rashi explains the rationale; let him die now as an innocent person. If he were to live, his crimes would become increasingly severe and eventually he would be put to death, guilty of a crime. Let him die the death of innocence now rather than that of guilt later. This is problematic. It seems to be a case of punishment before committing the crime. Why does he not get another chance? How are we to reconcile this ruling with the concept of Teshuva? Can the Beit Din be sure that he will become a criminal?
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 71) informs us that there never was, nor will there ever be a rebellious child. It was included in the Torah for us to study and contemplate. If the ruling has no practical relevance, there is no rebellious child, what values are we to derive from this ruling? Why does the Torah share this case with us?
Let us examine the context of the rebellious child. These are the first three topics in Parshat Ki Teitzei.
The captive woman- a woman taken captive from the enemy at war and the process through which becomes eligible to marry the soldier who found her.
Law of inheritance for the firstborn. The firstborn receives a double portion of inheritance
Rashi explains that the laws concerning a rebellious child must be seen in their context. A rebellious child is not born in a vacuum, there are precursors. A child learns to rebel from his experiences growing up. The rebellious child is mentioned after the captive woman. The Torah tells us that the captive is a beautiful woman. The soldier is drawn to her physical beauty. That is all he knows about her. This is not a sufficient basis with which to build the foundations of a Jewish home, there are likely to be tensions in their relationship. What values does the soldier share with the captive woman? If there is disharmony in the home, this will affect the children. Rashi suggests that taking a captive woman as a wife could eventually lead to a rebellious child.
This is a profound idea. A rebellious child does not appear out of the blue. Our lifestyles and choices have an affect not just on our lives now; they exert an influence on generations not yet born. When the soldier marries a captive woman, perhaps it is the start of a process that will end with the tragic death of a rebellious son.
But what of the second topic in this weeks Parsha, the laws of inheritance, how are they relevant? What role do they serve in explaining the rebellious child? Shem Mishmuel suggests that both the laws of inheritance and that of the rebellious child focus on the same theme, the importance of beginning. They both focus on the power of the start. It is the start that sets the tone for the continuation.
The firstborn receives a double portion of inheritance because he is the beginning. He is the first of the children. He is not intrinsically better than his siblings; he is simply the first one. The Torah wants to stress the significance of the start- the first member of the next generation. The double portion of inheritance represents an effort to emphasize the importance of the beginning.
The rebellious son too teaches the importance of the beginning. He is punished because he started his adult life badly. If the start is good; the continuation is likely to be good. If the start is bad, it is much more difficult to change at a later stage. The rebellious son is a powerful reminder- if you do not start right, it becomes much more difficult to change at a later stage, and sometimes it is impossible to do so. Both the laws of inheritance and the rebellious son emphasize the power of the beginning. The power of the beginning appears in other contexts too. We start the day with Shacharit, the longest of the three daily services. We want to set a tone for the day. Marriage begins with seven festive days. If we manage to start right, it is much easier to continue.
We are blessed with the opportunity for a new start every year on Rosh HaShana. It is a chance to begin again. The goal is not to make drastic changes in our lifestyles, it is difficult to maintain level of sensitivity and devotion in our prayers for the whole year, but if we manage to start the year on the right note, we are far better equipped to continue along the journey towards דביקות בה'.
In conclusion, it is true that the laws concerning the rebellious son are theoretical, but perhaps the powerful concepts that emerge can guide us. We can focus on the context within which a rebellious son comes into the world and think wisely about our life choices. Current decisions affect us, not just at this time, they have long term repercussions. In addition we can appreciate the value of beginnings and use the rebellious son as a guide to help us prepare our new start as we count down the days towards the New Year.