The Seeds of Rebellion
Modern people would probably be shocked by the fate of the rebellious son, the ben sorer umorer (21:18-21). “If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son who does not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother . . . [The parents] shall say to the elders of the city, ‘This son of ours is wayward and rebellious . . . All the men of his city shall pelt him with stones, and he shall die.’”
They needn’t worry. The conditions that had to be met before the death penalty could be administered were so stringent as to make it virtually impossible for it ever to occur. And our Sages indeed assure us that it never did. The Torah’s purpose in introducing this law is didactic rather than practical.
The Midrash Tanchuma observes that this commandment is the third in the parashah. The first is the commandment of yefas to’ar, which provides the laws for marrying a heathen woman captured in wartime. The second details the laws of inheritance that apply when a husband has children with two wives, one beloved and one hated. From this sequence, the Midrash infers that a man who marries a heathen captive will come to hate her, and that the union will eventually produce a ben sorer umorer, a rebellious son.
What is the psychology that drives this chain of events?
Perhaps we can find the answer in the story of Amnon and Tamar. Amnon, David’s son, harbors a passion for his stepsister Tamar. Unable to restrain himself any longer, he violates her. Afterward, Amnon sends her away; her pleas for him not to do so fall on deaf ears (II Samuel 13:15). “Amnon despised her with a great hatred; his hatred was even greater than the love he had felt for her.” Amnon hated her because her very presence reminded him of his surrender to his animalistic instincts. Rather than hate himself, he chose to hate the person who reminded him of his venal act.
In a similar fashion, the Jewish conqueror who succumbs to his lust and marries an unworthy heathen wife may regret his own weaknesses. The Torah predicts that instead of directing his recriminations at himself he will come to hate the wife taken in the moment of his weakness.
Finally, the Midrash suggests, this union may produce a rebellious son. This is not because the heathen wife will fill her son’s head with wrong ideas. Wrong ideas do not necessarily lead to rebelliousness; plenty of parents teach their children foolishness and nonsense, and yet the children show no inclination to rebel. The principal causes of rebellion lie elsewhere.
Rebellious children are unhappy children, and the primary source of unhappiness for children is disharmony in the home. Children desperately need the safety and nurturance of a happy home. When they sense tension between parents, their upbringing and happiness are greatly compromised. When a wife is hated and there is acrimony in the home, rebellious children will follow.
Promises of longevity are rare in the Torah. In fact, they appear only twice with relation to specific commands. One of these occurs with shiluach hakan, the sending away of the mother bird before taking the young (22:6-7). “If a bird’s nest . . . you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall surely send the mother away and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you and you will live a long time.” The other is the commandment to honor parents.
The Talmud relates (Chulin 141a) a story that raises serious questions about the promised rewards of these commandments. Elisha ben Avuiah once observed a father telling his son to climb a ladder to a bird’s nest and send away the mother bird. The boy fell off the ladder and died. Elisha was stunned. The boy had been fulfilling the two commandments for which the Torah promises goodness and long life. How could he possibly fall to his death while doing these things? And thus Elisha became the famous apostate, “Acher”. The Talmud wonders, why indeed did this happen? “Good” and “long life,” the Talmud explains, refer to the next world, the eternal world of righteous souls, which is all good and endlessly long.
Our Sages state that no verse fully leaves its simple meaning. Perhaps then we may also suggest a more literal interpretation.
King David declares (Psalms 89:3) that the world is established through kindness (olam chessed yibaneh). God, being perfect and without needs, created the world solely to benefit His creations through His goodness. The ultimate good God allows for us, is to be elevated and exalted through a direct relationship with Him. One means of accomplishing this is by imitating His ways; thus, we strive to be kind and merciful just as He is kind and merciful, and thereby, we place our metaphysical souls in harmony with the underlying will of God’s chessed, the cornerstone of Creation.
By commanding us to have compassion for a bird, a creature with which we have no natural identification, the Torah encourages us to extend our compassionate feelings to all creation and, in doing so, arrive at the level of kindness that is the most fundamental trait of our souls.
The chief beneficiary of this act will not be the bird but rather the person who sends it away. A person who pursues kindness is fully in line with this fundamental trait of his own soul. He will not be disturbed by inner demons of conflict that will drain his life force and age him prematurely. He will achieve the maximum length of days his body will allow; barring mishap, he will have a natural length of days. Moreover, the quality of that life will be far superior to the lives of coarse, selfish people who are in conflict with their souls, which are naturally predisposed to kindness. In this sense, his days will be “good” and “long.”
There is a debate among the Sages as to whether the juxtaposition of disparate verses or sections of law in the first four Books of the Torah can be used to derive information or legal principles. All agree, however, that the Book of Deuteronomy may be so expounded. Had Elisha ben Avuiah made a connection between adjacent verses he might have avoided apostasy.
What immediately follows the commandment of sending away the mother bird? It is the commandment of maakah, which calls for the placement of a security fence around an accessible roof. This seems to indicate that even someone who had performed the commandment of shiluach hakan needs to take precautions against mishaps. Apparently, the promise of good and lengthy days is not a guarantee that no mishaps will occur. It is either a promise of reward in the next world, or an explanation of the profound benefits of such a kindly disposition in this world.
As mentioned above, there is one other commandment for whose fulfillment the Torah promises “good” and “long” days¾honoring parents. Can we provide a natural explanation here too according to the simple meaning of the verse? How and why might this transpire?
Honoring parents, the fifth of the Ten Commandments, is the last of the first group, which are generally regarded as sins against God. The Maharal, in Tiferes Yisrael, explains that each of these five has a counterpart in the last five commandments, which speak of sins against man.
Violation of the first command by failure to acknowledge God’s existence is the equivalent of murder, the sixth. Denying the oneness of God through idols corresponds to the destruction of the oneness of the husband-wife unit through adultery. Misusing God’s Name by a false oath is equated with misusing a person in the most basic way¾by kidnapping him, the seventh commandment. We give testimony to God’s general providence by the observance of the Sabbath, as prescribed by the fourth commandment, so too are we enjoined from giving false testimony against our fellow man, the ninth commandment.
Finally, the commandment to honor parents expresses reverence for and appreciation of God’s providence that leads to each individual’s own existence. This matches the tenth commandment¾not to covet. It would seem the core failure of covetousness stems from an overestimation of one’s importance and a failure to appreciate the blessing of life and everything else God has bestowed. Proper observance leads to gratitude and the conviction that God provides what is appropriate and necessary for satisfaction and happiness in life without having recourse to something belonging to someone else.
Honoring parent shows appreciation for the vehicle God chose for drawing our divine souls into our bodies, the individual providence of our own existence. Appreciation, hakaras hatov, is like the kindness essential for a person’s shleimus (wholeness or perfection). It allows a person to be satisfied or happy with his lot. Thus, like sending the mother bird away, it is “good for him” and “lengthens his days.”