We have become accustomed to hearing that the wayward and rebellious son, the Ben Sorer U’Moreh, never actually happened. Why then does the Torah spend time teaching us the halachos of a Ben Sorer U’Moreh? Chazal explain that we are meant to דרוש וקבל שכר, expound and receive reward. But when we look at the Gemara it is actually not so simple.
Who is this statement of דרוש וקבל שכר in accordance with? The Gemara suggests that it is in accordance with Rav Shimon who said, “Should a boy be taken by his parents to be stoned to death simply because he ate a tarteimar of meat and drank a half log of Italian wine? Rather, there has never been a Ben Sorer U’Moreh and there will never be one in the future. Why then was this Parsha written in the Torah? דרוש וקבל שכר, so that we may expound upon it and receive reward. Rav Yonason disagrees and in fact testifies that he once saw a Ben Sorer U’Moreh sentenced to death. After the execution Rav Yonason even sat by the grave of the Ben Sorer U’Moreh.
We have been operating with the assumption that a Ben Sorer U’Moreh never actually occurred, but it is in fact a Machlokes! However, as we carefully examine this Gemara, several questions jump off the page at us.
- It is one thing for Rav Shimon to argue that there has never been a Ben Sorer U’Moreh but how could he predict that there would never be a Ben Sorer U’Moreh in the future? While it is true that the halachos make it virtually impossible for us to execute a Ben Sorer U’Moreh, it is still a small possibility. How could Rav Shimon know for certain that it would never happen?
- Rav Shimon is certain that there has never been a Ben Sorer U’Moreh executed and yet that is exactly what Rav Yonason reported. Who was correct? Rav Shimon or Rav Yonason? How could they disagree about basic facts?
- What compelled Rav Yonason to visit the grave of the executed Ben Sorer U’Moreh?
In earlier articles we have spoken about the game of charades that our children are playing. Lacking the emotional language to express their pain, children will act out in order to get what they need. It is their way of communicating to us what they are going through. The parent who is attuned to the emotional language of their children listens carefully to what the child is experiencing and acts accordingly. Perhaps this explains why a child who is raised by deaf parents cannot be considered a Ben Sorer U’Moreh. They only saw the child’s behaviors but could not hear the pain that he was expressing. Lacking the adult attachment that would give this child the emotional language necessary to express himself in a healthy and well-adjusted fashion, the child cannot be held accountable for his actions. He is doing his absolute best.
This is the argument of Rav Shimon. He does not say that there will never be a Ben Sorer U’Moreh because of the Halachik technicalities but because he cannot imagine a world in which a parent would be instructed to take their child to be killed simply for eating and drinking excessively. How could a parent who loves their child not hear the cries for help that underlay this inappropriate behavior? Why would we judge a child by his behavior without looking at the motivating factors? We are obligated to דרוש וקבל שכר, expound and receive reward. Do not simply look on a surface level at the child’s behavior, expound and understand what pain he is experiencing and expressing. Only then will we be rewarded with a true understanding of who this child is and how we can help him. In Rav Shimon’s understanding of human psychology no parent could ever be so obtuse as to judge their child by his actions without looking at the deeper motives. It has never happened, and it will never happen. Of that he is certain.
Sadly, Rav Yonason has a different experience. He had seen it. Before his very eyes he saw children in pain labeled for their behavior and sentenced to death so to speak. I know a young man who was asked to leave his school because of his disruptive behavior. The young man has grown to be a fine Eved Hashem and holds no resentment against his previous institution. He only wishes that someone, a Rebbe, a teacher, a guidance counselor, a principal, at some point would have pulled him to the side and asked if he was ok. He knew he was not. Even at a young age he understood that his lack of decorum was his way of getting attention in a school where he felt like a social outcast. Instead, he was labeled as a problem child with ADHD and expelled from school. It took this young man years to come to the conclusion that he was in fact a normal child who was acting exactly as one would expect given his situation. Only then was he able to heal.
Rav Yonason did not just see children defined by their behavior, he grieved for them. He felt compelled to visit their graves. To mourn those children that were executed by those who were quick to define them by their worst moments. This is not hyperbole. Many years ago, I had the privilege of knowing a beautiful soul who was tormented by terrible demons. This was in the era when the term “kids at risk” was first becoming in vogue. He became known as “that kid” in the community. But I will always remember him as the innocent child who Davened in our Shul and played in our home. That’s who he really was. Whatever people saw on the outside was the pain he wore on his sleeve. It did not represent his truest self though it was a very real representation of his experience. Eventually, after many years of fighting, he tragically lost his battle. Life was too much for him to bear. It was the grave of such a child that Rav Yonason visited. A true leader of Klal Yisrael leads by example. Rav Yonason did not deliver sermons or become a thought leader who pontificated on the issues. He grieved for the hurt children of Klal Yisrael who felt as if they did not belong. Rav Yonason knew the stakes and we can imagine that as a result he created a space for these children to speak their truth. To share their experience without being told that they were not enough. Rav Yonason’s grief saved the lives of future children who did not know how to articulate their pain.
So, in truth Rav Shimon and Rav Yonason agreed. Rav Shimon instructs us to דרוש וקבל שכר, expound upon these children and you will reap the reward of seeing them grow into beautiful people. He could not envision anyone doing anything to the contrary. Rav Yonason visits those who live in the depths of darkness. To those who did not grow up under the Chinuch vision of Rav Shimon. He goes to those places where children have been executed and he grieves with them. He mourns with them as they share their pain. He sits with them as they find the words to articulate their pain. And in so doing he raises them up. They become functioning members of society, some of the most spiritual people in our community. It is not magic; it is the reward we reap when we see people for who they truly are.
 Sanhedrin 71a
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