One of the stranger parshiyos in the Torah certainly has to be one that we read in a section of this week’s Torah leining, that of the ben sorer umoreh, the “wayward and rebellious son.” At the age of thirteen, barely bar-mitzvah, this child steals money from his parents, eats meat and drinks wine with that money, and ignores warnings that he desist from his evil ways. The Torah decrees that he be put to death, “and all Israel shall hear and fear.” The commentaries struggle to understand the severity of the punishment when matched up against his seemingly not-that -severe crimes.
Ramban weighs in thusly: “Now, he is deserving of… punishments… for each sin that he has committed. The first sin is the disrespect he has shown against his father and mother, and his rebelliousness against them; and the second sin is that he is a glutton and drunkard, thereby violating that which we were commanded, ‘You shall be holy.’ And it is furthermore stated, ‘And G-d shall you serve and to Him shall you cleave,’ which means, as I have explained above, that we are commanded to know HaShem in all of our ways; and a drunkard and glutton are not ‘knowing’ the ways of HaShem. In any event, even though disrespecting parents, not being holy, and not cleaving to HaShem are themselves not capital crimes, he is judged by what he is destined to do in the end, as Chazal teach us it is better that he should die while innocent rather than after he has become guilty. ”
But what does Ramban mean? If we need to say that the child is killed because of what the future holds for him, why does Ramban also have to say that the boy is violating the mitzvah of being holy and cleaving to HaShem; how does that add anything to killing him “al shem sofo”?
There is a basic question asked about the ben sorer umoreh, and the idea of killing him to prevent a more wicked future. We are apparently taught the exact opposite rule by Chazal, in the passuk about Yishmael in which HaShem says that He “hears the voice of the lad as he is here,” meaning that although the angels claimed that Yishmael deserved to die because of what his future would bring (the persecutions of Klal Yisrael), nevertheless, HaShem judges a person as he is at the present moment without “peering,” as it were, into the future. Isn’t that a direct contradiction to the ben sorer umoreh punishment?
Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, a famous commentary on Rashi, answers that it is different when there is an aveirah going on in the present. In that case, we say we are ready to kill him to avoid an even more evil future. But Yishmael was an innocent at present, in which case the rule is to deal only with the present.
That rule explains Ramban’s imperative to say that the ben sorer umoreh is violating mitzvos now. But what is the rationale of this rule? Why should it matter? Also, the implication of Chazal when they say “a person is judged only as he is at present” certainly sounds like that is the case even if he is sinning now, for what difference would it make, if present is present and future is future!? Furthermore, if the case of the ben sorer umoreh requires that he steal money first (see above), why does Ramban need to talk about “being holy” and “cleaving to HaShem”; isn’t it enough of an aveirah — now — to steal!?
The key to understanding the concept is to understand that many times, a present aveirah is but stage one of future aveiros. What Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi is referring to is that if the future already exists — if what we have now in front of us can be likened to a seed, a sapling, ready to grow and grow into bigger, more monstrous aveiros — then the Torah dictates the punishment of the ben sorer umoreh, for it is likely that it is just a matter of time. Thus Ramban would not speak of the aveirah of robbery; we would not see present stealing as embryonic. Rather, Ramban speaks of more conceptual aveiros — be holy, cling to HaShem — for that is what we see as incurring worse and worse violations as time goes on, if left unchecked.
Indeed, Ramban states on the passuk of serving HaShem (Devarim 6:13), “And the explanation of ‘and Him shall you serve’ is that you should act towards G-d at all times like an acquired servant, until this leads to what Chazal have said, ‘And let all your actions be for the same of heaven,’ meaning that even one’s physical needs should be done for the sake of serving G-d. He should eat and sleep and take care of his other physical needs only as much as is required for the preservation of the health of his body so that he will be able to serve HaShem… In short, whenever he is engaged in tending to any of his physical needs, he should keep in mind the verse, ‘I shall praise HaShem with my life [apparently Ramban’s rendering of b’chai’ai], I shall sing to HaShem with my existence [b’odi].’ And this is a correct explanation of the meaning of the Divine service of our passuk.”
Now obviously we have no expectations that a thirteen-year-old boy be ready for such an exalted way of life. Yet Ramban’s point is that the ben sorer umoreh is headed in the opposite direction, and thus carries the seeds of destruction! Indeed, in such a case, the future is here, now! If the future is indeed nothing but the future, then certainly we apply Chazal’s rule of HaShem judging a person only in the here and now.
One might ask: according to this explanation, why does the point of the ben sorer umoreh violating kibbud av va’em have any relevance to his future behavior? That seems to be “just” an aveirah, such as stealing!
The answer lies in the words of Ramban in the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em (Shemos 20:12-13): “The Torah begins the series of mitzvos between man and fellow-man with the one concerning parents, for it ‘straddles’ the line — the parent is something akin to a creator to the offspring, acting as a partner in the formation of the child; for HaShem is the primary Father, and the one who begat us is our ‘final’ parent, and G-d is saying, in effect, that just as I have given you commands regarding My honor, so too am I giving you a command regarding the honor of the one who was My partner in creating you.” In Devarim, Ramban writes, “Because the honor of parents is the honor of HaShem, it is thus made into one of the five mitzvos of the Aseres Hadibros which is directly about HaShem’s honor.”
This clearly explains why the ben sorer umoreh, violating the basic norms of kibbud av va’em and being holy and cleaving to HaShem, has embarked on a road leading and growing into more severe violations of HaShem’s honor. Let him die, say Chazal, while he is technically innocent.