The Bad Seed

teenscream.jpgFrom this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei:

If a man has a wayward and defiant 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 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.” 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)

So what is this, some kind of sick joke?

In fairness, it should be noted that many classical Jewish commentators have properly recoiled from these infamous verses. In a well-known Talmudic passage, R. Judah and R. Simeon went as far as to claim that this law was never actually enacted, stating:

There never was and never will be a wayward and defiant son. (BT Sanhedrin 71a)

Why then, you might ask, was this law included in the Torah? Rabbis Judah and Simeon cryptically respond: “Seek and you shall find reward” – a comment commonly understood to mean parents should study this passage and be appropriately scared enough to set their children on the right path.

In this Talmudic understanding, then, the commandment of the wayward and defiant son thus seems to serve as a kind of parental “shock therapy.” It is particularly fascinating in the way it reflects every parent’s deepest, darkest insecurities – and society’s latent fear that it might somehow “lose control” of its children.

It should also be noted that this commandment treats the issue of troubled children an issue for the entire community – it is not the parents’ problem alone. In this regard, it could well be claimed that these verses have a great deal of relevance to an American culture that too often throws up its hands when it comes to safeguarding the well being of at-risk children.

Examples? Look no farther than our nation’s fragile support of after-school programs. According to National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center:

The after-school hours are the peak time for juvenile crime and risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use. Most experts agree that after-school programs offer a healthy and positive alternative. These programs keep kids safe, improve academic achievement and help relieve the stresses on today’s working families. They can serve as important youth violence prevention and intervention strategies.

Yet most youth do not have access to after-school programs. Every day, at least eight million children and youth are left alone and unsupervised once the school bell rings. While nine in 10 Americans think that all youth should have access to after-school programs, two-thirds say it is difficult to find programs locally. With more and more children growing up in homes with two working parents or a single working parent, today’s families can benefit from the safe, structured learning opportunities that after-school programs provide.

Here’s a thought: in honor of this week’s Parshat Ki Tetzei, why not consider helping advocating for the invaluable and perennially endangered after-school programs in in our country? Here’s a timely call to arms from the Afterschool Alliance:

With students heading back to school in late August and early September, and media filing back to school stories, after-school leaders and supporters can have a real impact right now by sending the message that millions of students have no place to go each afternoon after the school day ends. With Congress still considering the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) appropriation for next year, this is an especially important time for advocates to send messages about the benefits after-school programs provide to children, families and communities.

For more info on how to engage in some “Back to School Organizing,” click here.

One thought on “The Bad Seed

  1. aaa

    Thanks for pointing out the role of our wider community in rasing children, and thank you for highlighting this section from a very full and interesting parsha.

    This is particlarly important because it highlights both our overlapping roles as individuals, as members of a family and as members of a community.

    I believe it is traditionally taught that for a child to be punished like this, the parents would have a significant responsibility. They must have “spoken with a single voice,” that is to say not send mixed messages.


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