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“Scare Tactic,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

September 9, 2022 | 13 Elul 5782

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

How does someone get others to obey him? Where there is hegemony, there is always a way. Where there is morality and justice, it is much more complicated. The rabbis of the Talmud had a very hard time with a section of this week’s Torah portion.

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 wickedness from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid. (Deut. 21:18-21)

The rabbis of the Talmud (Sanhendrin 71a) struggled with these verses. They concluded: There never was a wayward and defiant son or will there ever be one in the future. They reached this conclusion by interpreting to such specificity that they rendered it null and void: both the mother and father had to be the same size and appearance; they had to have the same voice. The rabbis knew even then that such identical similarities would be impossible.

So, why even have such a text included in the canon? The Talmud justified its presence: studying the passage is in and of itself the reward. In the 19th century, Rabbi Israel Salanter added that studying Torah for its own sake is an obligation even where one will never practice that particular law. Others have surmised that the law and the description that went with it confirmed a hierarchy of responsibility: The father has the child. Both parents can discipline. The parents take their plea to the elders and the men of the town carry out the punishment. I think the point comes in the final statement. All the community of Israel will hear and be afraid.

In the context and worldview of the ancients, retribution and punishment came in harsh methods. They do not sit well with our sensibilities. Elsewhere in Torah, the concept of holiness demands caring behavior. Last week, the Torah focused on securing and pursuing justice. Forcing people to behave out of fear doesn’t work. It was never implemented. Taking care of each other is eternal.

What has remained in our time and continued to be observed are the ethical and religious pathways that lead us to righteous and kind behavior. T’shuvah, discovering and engaging in the restorative behaviors that return us to our best selves, is a guide on that route to a fulfilling and meaningful life.

(Initially shared on August 24, 2018)

Shabbat Shalom!

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  • If you are in town, come join us for Qabbalat Shabbat in the Garden with plenty of singing, learning, praying, thinking, and some treats to eat and drink. If you’re unable to join onsite, please join on Zoom, on Facebook Live, or livestream on our website. Let’s celebrate together.
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Rabbi Elaine Zecher