Parashat Ki Tetze is one of my favorites–not because of the litany of seemingly unrelated, and in some cases, harsh laws, but because it contains the first topic I studied in my “Intro to Mishnah” class in rabbinical school. Through that, I learned about the brilliance of Judaism and how our teachings and traditions have evolved.
Take for example, the story of the ben sorrer u’moreh, the “stubborn and disobedient son” (Deut 21:18-21):
“If a man has a stubborn and disobedient son, who does not heed his father and/or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out 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. Then 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.”
Wow. It’s one thing for God to command the Israelites to destroy their enemies, but your own son??? Sure, there may have been times when mine was a teenager that the thought might have crossed my mind, and yes, he knows that. He’s now 31 and teaches middle-school math. Karma.
Whether we take the text of the Torah as God’s word or consider it a human construct, I don’t think we can take the words at face value. The text of those verses brings up all kinds of questions that ChaZaL–our Sages of Blessed Memory, asked and struggled with. Eventually, and essentially, by asking these questions, they were able to make sure no one’s son ever qualified for this punishment. (To see how this came about, look at Mishnah Sanhedrin 8.)
What can we take away from this? First, I take heart in knowing that parenting has been a challenge since time began, that I’m not alone with respect to raising teenagers–sons and daughters. Second, that God wants us to err on the side of caution, to come up with ways to mitigate punishment when appropriate, and to choose life.
Finally, as we saw in the Torah with Abraham and Moses, who challenged and argued with God on behalf of others, The Holy One is inviting us into conversation. God wants us to struggle with the mitzvot we find problematic, uncomfortable or wrong, perhaps even offensive–not reject them outright.
Humans are created b’tzelem elohim, in the Divine image, not just to be God’s partners in making the world a better place, but to be God’s “sparring partners” when appropriate. I look forward to the day I can hear the Holy One of Blessing say, “My children have defeated me!”