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Torah Sparks

August 28, 2004 - 11 Elul 5764

Annual: Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1112; Hertz p. 840)
Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 24:14 - 25:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1130; Hertz p. 852)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 - 10:12 (Etz Hayim, p. 1138; Hertz p. 857)

Prepared by Rabbi Naomi Levy
Author of To Begin Again and Talking to God

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Parasha Summary

Our parasha this Shabbat focuses on moral values. We learn about the treatment of captives, of the poor and helpless. We are enjoined to return lost property, to be kind to animals, to be fair in business practices. It is in our portion that we encounter the law of the stubborn and rebellious son, and the famous pronouncement that we must never forget what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt.

Discussion Theme 1: An Incorrigible Child

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 elder 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. (Deut 21:18-21)

Derash: Study

  1. Rashi: The stubborn and rebellious son is punished not for what he is, but for what he will eventually become.
  2. The sages in the Talmud obviously had difficulty with this law. Their response was to legislate it out of existence: A minor cannot become a rebellious son… It must be a son and not one old enough to be a father… A son and not a daughter… He must be both a drunkard and a glutton... If one of his parents had a severed hand, he does not become a rebellious son… He is not liable unless he has a mother and a father… If one of his parents were lame he does not become a rebellious son… If one of them were mute he does not become a rebellious son… If one of them were blind, he does not become a rebellious son… If one of them were deaf he does not become a rebellious son… (Talmud Sanhedrin 68-71)
  3. After limiting the case out of existence the Talmud then proclaims that such a case never occurred and never will occur. Why then was it mentioned in the Torah? So that one can study and receive reward for Torah study for its own sake.
  4. Rabbi Salanter commented: This teaches us that the obligation to study the Torah is not only so as to know what to do and how to fulfill the commandments, but study for its own sake, even where one will never practice this or that particular law. (Torah Gems p 272)
  5. The stubborn and rebellious son is one who rebels himself and who attempts to teach others (moreh) to follow his lead. That is the nature of the wicked who are not content with sinning themselves but wish to teach others to follow in their wicked path. (Gems p 273)

Questions for Discussion

  1. Compare Rashi's comment on this verse to Rashi on Genesis 21:17: There the opposite happens. God saves Ishmael because at the moment he is still innocent. Should people be judged by what they may grow up to become, or by who they are at this moment in time?
  2. What should parents do if they have a stubborn and rebellious child? What would you advise them to do?
  3. Why do you think the Torah law here is so harsh? Why is the stubborn and rebellious child such a threat to the social order?

Discussion Theme 2: Protect Animals or Protect Humans

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird's nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Deut 22:6-7)

Derash: Study

  1. Rambam's assumption is that animals share certain human emotions, especially the mother's love for her children. "If the mother is let go or escapes of her own accord she will not be pained by seeing that the young are taken away. In most cases this will lead to people leaving everything alone, for what may be taken is in most cases not fit to be eaten." (Guide II 48 quoted in Plout, A Torah Commentary p 1488)
  2. Ramban differed slightly and explained that the reason for the law was not kindness to animals, but to tame humans and teach them compassion. (Plout p 1488)
  3. Midrash Rabbah further extends the reward promised by God for observing this law: And what will be your reward? If you have no children, I (the Lord) will give you children. By keeping this commandment you hasten the coming of the Messiah… and the coming of the Prophet Elijah."
  4. A mystical commentary on this verse likens the mother bird to the Shechina, the nest to the holy Temple, and the chicks to the Children of Israel: The Shechina (divine presence) is like a bird that was twice sent away from its nest (the destruction of both temples). That is why the Torah repeats the word "send" twice in the expression "you shall surely send away the mother." The mother, when chased away from her young, wanders about not knowing where to go. But God is merciful and so hears the pleading of the lost bird which has become identified with the people of Israel, wandering among the nations, accompanied by the Shechinah. (Zohar Chadash Midrash Ruth quoted in Munk, The Call of the Torah)
  5. This law calls into question the Torah's system of reward and punishment. In the Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) Elisha ben Abuya witnessed a boy whose father instructed him to climb up to a nest and send away the mother in adherence to the biblical verse. The boy was obeying two verses that promise a reward of long life - "honor your father and mother" and "send away the mother bird" - but instead of receiving his reward, the boy fell and died. In the face of this tragedy Elisha denied God's rule and exclaimed: there is no justice and no Judge. From then on the rabbis refrained from calling Elisha by his given name and referred to him instead as Aher (other).

Questions for Discussion

  1. What do you think the purpose of this law is? How does it fulfill that purpose?
  2. Do you think animals have emotions? What experiences support your answer? Do you think they feel love? maternal love? grief?
  3. How do you make peace with the Torah's promises of reward and punishment? Do you believe that those who observe God's commandments receive special divine protection? If the rewards promised for obedience to God's word are not provided in this world, do you believe the rewards will be showered upon us in the world to come?

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