Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat Ki Tetze 2012

Parashat Ki Tetze by Rabbi Richard Jacobi
1 September 2012

When groups of primary school children come to visit our synagogue, I usually help them to read from the Torah and this becomes a memorable moment for them. More specifically, I bring out a scroll set to Deuteronomy chapter 5. They offer what they know of the Ten Commandments, and I help three or four of them read the relevant words or phrases in the Torah and translate them. After each reading, I ask the group if they think the rule is a good one and they always answer that it is. Invariably, I end by reading the fifth commandment with the whole group and, when I ask the same question, the children agree that this, too, is a good rule. Some children even add their own midrash 'they look after me, I should be nice to them' or 'they made me, so I owe them' or such like.

The family unit in the Torah is the basic building block of society, which is why the first of the commandments about human relations deals with the duty of all children towards their parents. Yet, here in parshat Ki Teitsei, we find a most difficult reversal of the fifth commandment. In Deuteronomy 21, verses 18 - 21, a son is portrayed as so stubborn and rebellious, so disrespectful, that his parents bring a complaint about him to the elders. If the elders agree with the parents, the son’s punishment is to be stoned to death by the men of the city.

This is a truly harsh and violent law. Yet, rabbinic commentators have insisted over the generations that it is both a sign of a civilised society, in that the parents could not just kill their own child. They have also stated that it was never applied in practice, nor could it ever be, it was only ever intended as a warning!

If that is the case, then what exactly is the warning here? I think we can discount the idea that parents are being warned off the idea of “telling” on their children. Nor would I want to take this as a warning to parents that they must not ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’.

Instead, I think we have a warning that when the younger generation shows no respect for the family or community into which they are born, then society as a whole is threatened. In August 2011, we saw a violent and dangerous manifestation of this truth in London, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere around the country. By contrast, in August 2012, we have seen a truth much closer to that fifth commandment - Olympians and Paralympians thanking their parents and teachers for the good influence those older people had on them. Those same Olympians and Paralympians, whether they won medals or not, are the inspiration of the next generation. They have shown the power of resilience, courage, determination and sheer hard work, and I have been humbled to be in the presence of them and the thousands of willing volunteers giving of themselves to make the Games happen. In this month of Elul, the choice is clearly before us - which rules will we show to the next generation are the “good” ones? A colleague of mine includes this wisdom as part of her email signature: “You don't get to choose when you're setting an example” (Dr Gene Youngerman Austin, Texas), to which I would add, but we do have choice about what example we will set.