When do you give up on someone?” a friend asked as we were discussing a difficult passage in this week’s Torah portion. The text reads:
“If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or his 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 … Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all of the people of Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Deut. 21:18-21).
Even for those who take the “tough love” approach to parenting, this seems a little extreme.
Some of the rabbis of the Talmud defended this peculiar law on the grounds that excessive and ugly adolescent behavior is predictive of more serious criminal acts surely to emerge in adulthood. Executing someone before their transgressions become a threat to society was assumed to be the lesser of two evils.
This opinion, however, is unlikely to satisfy our modern sensibilities. And when an ancient Torah text has been ethically eclipsed by centuries of moral rethinking, we could simply regard the passage as an historical anachronism, embarrassing perhaps, but irrelevant. But we are not the first generation of Jews to be provoked by a text attributed to God that seems anything but godly.
Consider this audacious ancient assertion:
“Lo hiya v’lo nivra, eleh mashal hu” — “There never was and never will be a ‘ben sorer u-moreh,’ a stubborn and rebellious child; the text is a pretext.” Why then, asks the Talmud, was the law written? Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon answer: in order that you may study it and thus earn the reward for studying. (TB Sanhedrin 71B)
These rabbis chose to use the rebellious and reprobate child as a pretext for a discussion of the idea of teshuva, of repentance — the very theme that permeates these weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The idea that past behavior is predictive of future behavior runs counter to the entire premise of teshuva: that what we decide in any given moment always has the possibility to change the direction of our life.
While apology may be difficult, forgiveness may be elusive, and commitment to change may be suspect, without them the opportunity of the Ten Days of Repentance would be pointless. Even when an apology is awkward or difficult, it holds out the possibility of forgiveness. Even when forgiveness may not be forthcoming, it offers us the chance to unburden ourselves. Even if we have passed up previous opportunities to change, we may yet make a different decision this year, in this present moment. And even when we have vowed to change and then fallen back into prior patterns of behavior, we may succeed the next time.
The High Holiday liturgy includes this prayer: “God does not desire a person to die, but only to change and to live. Down to a person’s last day of life, there is the chance to return. And all who return and resolve to be just, God immediately welcomes them.”
Each life is a story of moments: a moment in which a chance remark awakens an unexpected insight; a moment of solitude that results in a renewed sense of responsibility; a moment of decision that yields hope; a moment of atonement that yields eternity.
When do you give up on someone?
How many moments are there in a lifetime?
Rabbi Richard Hirsh engages in independent rabbinic projects in Wynnewood, Pa.