Torah calls on the neighbors
To help reign them in
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 evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.
This seems like quite a severe decree, but we believe it was never carried out. Are there ways to understand the text so we will never actually call on our neighbors to stone our children to death?
The mention – twice – of both father and mother suggest there cannot be disagreement about what is proper behavior for the child. If the parents aren’t on the same page concerning child rearing, the rule does not apply.
The parents are called upon to call their child “a glutton and a drunkard.” This suggests a very specific type of defiance. Perhaps without such extreme behavior the severe punishment is not appropriate.
But, more broadly, we can also understand that it not up to the parents alone to punish the child. The text calls for them to consult with the community. Perhaps this is actually meant to protect the child from parental misbehavior. Implicit in the instruction to “bring him out to the elders” is having the ultimate judgment made without undue haste.
Of course, there is also the idea that the entire community is responsible for raising good children. Although it would be wrong to punish a child without the parents’ consent, we cannot ignore misbehavior by others. Wrongs done by children should be brought to the attention of their parents. This may not be explicit in the text, but is part of what it means to be part of a community.
And sometimes an “outsider” is in a better position to talk to a child about proper behavior. An adult other than the one who sets bedtimes, demands that homework be done, and limits screen time might find a more sympathetic ear than the parents and help the child to understand the meaning of the Fifth Commandment.
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