In 1845 Heinrich Hoffman wrote the famous —Struwwelpeter, or in its English version “Shockheaded Peter”.
The book tells several stories, presenting pretty horrifying consequences of children’s misbehavior. It has a very clear methodology and goal, scaring children for the sake of preventing misbehavior.
Even when written thousands of years earlier, this week’s Sidrah is Torah’s version of Shockheaded Peter. We learn (Deut. 21:19-22) about the “Ben Sorer U’Moreh”, the defiant son who doesn’t listen to his mother and father, who doesn’t obey them, who doesn’t respond to their attempt to discipline him. And so, the Torah instructs: “He shall be taken to the eldest of his town, to a public place of his community, and the parents should declare: This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not listen to us. He is a glutton and a drunk.” And so the Torah concludes: “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.”
The Rabbis in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71/a) really struggle to digest this idea. They don’t have in their toolkit the possibility of defining this as a myth or just as a bad example. However after a long discussion they conclude:
לא היה ולא עתיד להיות
This never happened and it will never happen!
The Rabbis clearly reject fear as a learning methodology. Now, we are left to wonder why is the Torah appealing to fear. What is triggering this approach?
Over the book of Deuteronomy we have been exploring the art of love (V’ahavta), we have reflected on the ability to listen (Tishmeun), we have been presented with the importance of discerning and making mindful choices (Re’e), we have emphasized the centrality of accountability and justice (Shoftim). And now, in Parashat Ki Tetze, the Parasha that brings more than 10% of the Mitzvot of the entire Torah, we are introducing fear.
And so once again, why is Torah all of a sudden becoming StruwwelPeter?
This Torah Portion begins:
כי תצא אל המלחמה על אויביך (Deut 21:10)
Because you will go out to war against your enemies
And explains the Talmud that that war is no other than the war against our own evil inclination. In other words, the Torah portion starts off by saying: you will constantly deal with struggles. It then expands over many of the 74 Mitzvot included in this parsha: You will fulfill a variety of roles, you will be a parent, a child, a teacher, a neighbor, and sometimes even an enemy. You will find yourself in endless interactions and situations. And you will struggle…
Now, this is not the first time that the Torah suggests that we will struggle with our decision making, or with understanding how to best fulfill the roles we have in our lives. However, the Torah is self-aware of its timeline and it is running out. We are about to enter the promised land. We are five Torah portions away from the end of the 5th and last book of the Torah. And maybe the anxiety for the fear of what we might become is what’s acting out in this situation.
By the end of the Torah portion we realize that all this is likely rooted in the fact that Torah in the back of its mind, is watching a horror movie:
“Remember what Amalek has done to you!” Remember the ruthless evil that attacked you from behind. Wipe it out from the world, Torah instructs. But more than that, Torah is crying out:
Please don’t you ever become that evil!
In the variety of the roles you’ll fulfill, in the variety of situations you’ll face and decisions you’ll need to make you will be constantly challenged. Approach them with love, kindness and mercy, be open to listen, make deliberate choices, don’t guide yourself only by your urges, seek accountability and pursue justice.
Now, let’s go back to the beginning of our conversation; The rebellious son is described as “Sorer U’Moreh”. Explains Rabbi Ovadia Sforno: Sorer – סורר means “hasarat tikvah” the removal of hope. More – מורה, comes from Mar – bitterness.
Having gotten past the challenging vocabulary, we now can see the concern that we might fall into despair and excruciating bitterness. And one might wonder, if Torah had the opportunity to rethink and re-articulate this concern in a more approachable way to our modern ears, what would it sound like?
I can imagine something like this:
“There will be moments in which you’ll find yourself disconnected, disattached, distant… Don’t despair, don’t lose hope, “Vehashevota El Levavecha”: remember that Teshuvah, that the possibility and ability to return, are within your heart. Remember that rethinking and rectification sometimes begin by experiencing bitterness, but don’t let that bitterness become your identity. Start from the beginning, one good choice at a time. Savor the sweetness of growth as you become mindful of who you are and who you want to be.
“I believe I have given you the best tools,” Torah would say, “love, attentiveness, discernment and judgment. I fear you might forget that they are how we increase goodness in this world. Please do use them.
Life is complex and it is easy and sometimes very dangerous to get lost. Please do be careful.
I believe in you but most importantly I pray that you believe in yourself. Thus you will all hear and you won’t be afraid, but rather filled with sweetness and hope”.
-Rabbi Nico Socolovsky