This week’s parasha is Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19.[i] It is the fifth of the Haftarot of Consolation, from Isaiah 54:1-55:5. In this haftarah we read an encouraging proclamation from HaShem to Israel,
Fear not, for you will not be ashamed. Nor cringe, for you will not be disgraced. For you will forget the shame of your youth, and you will remember the reproach of your widowhood no more. For your Maker is your husband—ADONAI-Tzva’ot is His Name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer. He will be called God of all the earth. (Isaiah 54:4-5)
Turning to the parasha, we find the last group of laws given in Deuteronomy. These laws are “primarily concerned with private matters regarding individuals, their families and their neighbors, in contrast to the preceding group, which dealt with public officials and matters concerning the nation as a whole.”[ii] This is most encouraging in that it shows once again that HaShem is not only concerned with the larger communal matters but with the individual as well.
One of the more startling matters dealt with in this parasha, is the seeming permission for a husband and wife to bring their “rebellious” son to the city elders when they are no longer able to control their son; the end result is that the elders of the town are to stone the son to death. (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21) Interestingly according to tradition, this punishment was never carried out, with the possible exception of the single account recorded in Sanhedrin 71a,
Rabbi Yonatan says: … I was once in a place where a stubborn and rebellious son was condemned to death, and I even sat on his grave after he was executed.[iii]
However, I think there is something more here than just the extreme punishment of a rebellious son, and that is the outcome of the stoning, so that “you will purge the evil from your midst—and all Israel will hear and be afraid.” Three times in Deuteronomy this is the desired outcome of extreme punishment. The first is Deuteronomy 13:11-12, after the warning against listening to those who would seduce Israel to follow after foreign gods, “You are to stone him (or her) with stones to death because he tried to entice you away from ADONAI your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and never again will they do such an evil thing as this in your midst.”. The next occurs in Deuteronomy 19 after Israel was warned against listening to a false witness. In this case, stoning is not required, instead whatever was to be done against the falsely accused is to be done to the false witness, so that “you will purge the evil from your midst,” (19:19). Idolatry, bearing false witness or lying, and rebellion, were to be purged from the midst of Israel. All three of these actions have an aspect of separation: idolatry specifically separates man from God. Lying and rebellion separate brothers and sisters from one another as well as from HaShem. We see this exemplified in the account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, whose conspiracy to lie to the Ruach resulted in their subsequent deaths. Their extreme punishment caused a great fear to come “upon all who heard about it” (5:5, 11). It can be inferred, that at least for a little while, no one else attempted to do such a thing.
The psalmist wrote, “Serve ADONAI with fear and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). It would seem that Rav Shaul had this in mind when he wrote to the believers in Philippi, “Therefore, my loved ones, just as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence—work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Remember also the warning in Hebrews,
“My son do not take lightly the discipline of ADONAI or lose heart when you are corrected by Him, because ADONAI disciplines the one He loves and punishes every son He accepts.” (Hebrews 12:5-6)
I can remember when I was a child, often, but not always, my behavior was mediated by the knowledge that there would be punishment if I was caught. I will grant you that corporal punishment is a thing of the past now days but the threat of it did, for the most part, keep me on the straight and narrow. I am both pleased and thankful today for the firm guidelines and boundaries that my parents set for me and my siblings. I often wonder, along with many others, if one of the reasons for the decline of many societal standards is the fact that there is no longer a firm standard of righteousness and holiness; less and less are those who deviate from the once accepted norm having to pay the consequences for their actions. Moshe’s warning to the Children of Israel recorded earlier in Deuteronomy are appropriate here:
So you must take care to do as ADONAI your God has commanded you—do not turn aside to the right or to the left. You are to walk in all the way that ADONAI your God has commanded you, so that you may live and it may be well with you and you may prolong your days in the land that you will possess. (Deuteronomy 5:30; 5:33 in Christian Bibles)
One would hope that the positive consequence “so that you may live and it may be well with you” would motivate Israel and each one of us to “take care to do as ADONAI” has commanded. Unfortunately, just like little children, sometimes it takes a little bit of fear, of reverential awe, to motivate us to do what we know is right. May we all find the motivation to fear God and obey His commandments, and to love and serve Him with all of our mind and being (Deuteronomy 10:12).
[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
[ii] Dr. Jeffery H. Tigay (Commentator), The JPS Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication society, 1996, p 193.