Parashat Ki-Teseh: Tough Love
One of the subjects discussed in Parashat Ki-Teseh is the "Ben Sorer U’more," the "wayward son." The case involves a child who refuses to obey his parents’ authority, eats and drinks with unrestrained gluttony, and commits criminal acts. The parents bring the child to local Rabbinical court and report about his unruly behavior. After hearing the parents’ report, the court must – if certain conditions are met – execute the child.
The Talmud teaches that this case never actually happened; the Halacha of "Ben Sorer U’more" has always remained a strictly hypothetical concept. One of the reasons for why this situation never arose is because Halacha imposes numerous conditions for this law to apply, making it all but impossible for such a thing to ever happen. The Halacha is introduced by the Torah, but practically speaking, it cannot ever apply.
The Talmud raises the obvious question of why the Torah instituted a Halacha that would never apply. What purpose is served by establishing a law which is never implemented? The Gemara explains, "Derosh Ve’kabel Sachar" – the Torah provided us with additional material to study and thereby earn reward. The law of "Ben Sorer U’more" will never be practically applicable, but we are able to study the numerous laws and details relevant to this subject and thereby earn reward.
Clearly, we do not need the Halacha of "Ben Sorer U’more" to ensure that we have enough study material. Even without this topic, we have far more Torah to learn than we could ever master in a lifetime. Therefore, when the Talmud speaks of "Derosh Ve’kabel Sachar," the reward available to us through studying this subject, it likely refers to the valuable lessons that can be gained. Studying the topic of "Ben Sorer U’more" is rewarding in the sense that it is enlightening, specifically regarding our most crucial responsibility in life – raising children.
The most obvious lesson that emerges from this Halacha is a parent’s obligation not to ignore or overlook a child’s misbehavior. In the extreme case of the "Ben Sorer U’more," the parents report their child to the Bet Din knowing that the child might be put to death. As mentioned, this will never happen, but it presents us with an important model of parental responsibility. Too often, parents dismiss their child’s misbehavior as a passing phase, or excuse it as normal, acceptable conduct for a child. Rather than take the difficult but necessary steps required to discipline and restrain their children, they just let it go. The extreme model of "Ben Sorer U’more" demonstrates the concept that psychologists call "tough love" – showing love and concern for children specifically by not giving them everything they ask for and not allowing them to do everything they want to do. It demonstrates that parents must, at times, take action to rein in on their children’s misconduct.
There was once a group of parents in the community whose children would frequently get together for parties at which they would drink to intoxication. The teenagers were already driving age, and the parents where thus understandably concerned about the children’s safety getting home from these parties. They decided to solve the problem by… hiring drivers to bring their children home. Rather than putting their foot down and forbidding their children from attending such events, they went along with it and ensured that the children could attend as many as they like without any repercussions or concern.
As parents, we have a responsibility to intervene, when necessary, to direct our children. If we truly love our children, we will not be afraid of "tough love," of taking prudent disciplinary measures when the situation calls for them. Taking such measures is a far greater demonstration of love than irresponsibly allowing our children to act as they see fit without restraint.