This week’s parsha of Ki Tetze is often lauded for the ability to pack the largest number of mitzvot (74 out of the Torah’s 613) into a single parsha. Among these are such classic “feel good” mitzvot as, returning your fellow’s ox if you see it has gone astray, building a fence around your roof to protect others from accidental injury, and sending away the mother bird before you take her eggs. Other important social laws dealing with war, justice in business practices and general stipulations for social order are also covered in this parsha. While most of these laws can be made relevant to our contemporary lives, one that has particular relevance to our work as Hillel professionals is the commandment of what to do with the “wayward son” or the ben sorer u’moreh.
The biblical passage about the “wayward son” states, “If a man has a wayward son who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon, the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
This passage is understandably somewhat fearful at face value, as it is stipulating a means for killing one’s children. Even more troubling is the description of this child is strikingly similar to most stereotypical descriptions of college students: defies authority, eats large quantities of food, and has developed an inexplicable taste for warm beer…. sound familiar?
While trying to legalize and enact restrictions to make the law almost unenforceable, the Gemara rationalizes its existence through the concept stated in the Mishnah in Sanhedrin 71b, “Let him die while yet innocent, and let him not die guilty.” The assumption put forth by Rabbi Yosi HaGalili on 72b is that the Torah foresees this child’s destiny as one that leads him to sin and harming others and therefore the child is ultimately saved from that end by this law.
Although we usually do not have such fatalistic expectations for our students, these passages can be seen as asking a deeper question: To what extent am I responsible for my fellow person? In which person do I place my trust and loyalty? Should I care about the troubled individual I know, or the person s/he might harm in the future?
We do not have to search far for a possible answer. A few chapters later in the parsha we have a similar statement representing the other end of the obligation spectrum.
“Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: A person shall be put to death only for his own crime,” (Deut. 24:16).
In addition to the parallels in the analogy to family structure, this verse also deals with the problem of individual versus communal responsibility. However, the concluding clause of this verse strongly advocates for individual responsibility for behavior. Deuteronomic law is creating a balance between our responsibility to our community and our need for ownership of our actions.
As I prepare for the start of the upcoming year, with the arrival and confusion of first-year students and the joyful reunions of friends who lost touch over the summer, this sense of balance is an important lesson for me. Students -- even those who may sometimes act like “wayward children” -- are also just searching for the appropriate middle ground between responsibility to themselves and to their communities. All of our students struggle to balance their identities as Jews with the other demands of their coursework, jobs, families, friends and the many other joys and hardships of college life. Through our help, patience and free coffee dates, we can add meaningful support to all of their journeys.
Prepared by Miriam Ignatoff, program director for Oberlin College Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Ki Tetze at MyJewishLearning.com.