Most of my life I’ve been an educator. Since becoming a counselor in my youth movement 18 years ago and until this day, I’ve worked in education. For educators like myself, this time of year is special: summer vacation is over, the autumn flowers are blooming, and the High Holidays are right around the corner. What’s most special to me about this time of year, though, is that it is the starting point – opening, welcoming and introduction – of most educational institutions in Israel. In the past few weeks, toddlers arrived to kindergartens, kids met their teachers in classrooms, and here at BINA, dozens of mechina (gap year) and shnat sherut (pre-army service year) participants started their journey. Even though there is a big difference between the kindergarten toddler and the new gap year participant, the encounter between the educator and the student has a lot in common.
“Play, because in humankind I believe, And I still believe in you,” wrote Shaul Tchernichovsky, and indeed I always feel that I’m an educator because I believe in people. I assume that this is also the motivation that drives most educators in Israel and around the world. I believe in my students’ ability to cope with the challenges they face today, and I have even greater faith in what and who they will become in the future.
Approaching this week’s Parasha, Ki Teitzei, I encounter an age-old educational challenge – the “wayward and rebellious” son:
“If a man has a wayward and rebellious son who does not obey his father or his mother, and they chasten him, and does not listen to them: his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place: And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; [he is] a glutton and a guzzler.’: And all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you clear out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21.)
I always find the passage above absurd when reading it on a literal level. Here is a child who disobeys his parents, the authority figures in this case. What do they do? They take him out to the town square, announce his deviant behavior, and in response the town elders and community pelt him to death.
Isn’t this going a little too far?
The child is testing boundaries, butting heads with the authority figures in his life, rebelling a bit and acting out. He didn’t hurt anyone or kill anyone. He just ate and drank excessively. Is there a teenager who doesn’t do that at some point in his or her life? And still, the Torah commands the parents and the community to pelt him to death. I’m all for using consequences to get results in order to educate a child, but does anyone think this is a proportional punishment?
The sages of the Mishna also struggled with this challenging passage, which they explained as follows: “The wayward and rebellious son is judged on the basis of his end. He should die innocent and not liable.” (Mishna Sanhedrin 8:5) Meaning, he is not sentenced to death due to what he did, but due to the things he will do in the future. And since the wayward son is expected to do horrible things in his future (the sages further explain that he might even be a potential murderer), it is better if he dies now as an innocent man, rather than to die as a guilty man in the future.
The sages of the Mishna tried to help with this problematic passage, but I find their solution troublesome in its own way. Since when do we punish someone for future actions? What about the presumption of innocence? What about due process?
Some students at our Secular Yeshiva asked me if this practice of stoning the wayward son was actually carried out. Was the world of our ancestors truly full of parents who handed their children to a court that condemned them to be pelted to death? The answer is of course not. There is even a discussion among the sages (in Tractate Makot) that says a court that hands down as few as one death sentence in seven years is “bloodthirsty”, and another minority opinion even takes it further, setting the bar for bloodthirstiness to be just one death sentence every seventy years. Therefore, it seems unlikely that this punishment was actually carried out as written.
So what are we to learn from this biblical passage? Beyond the unfulfilled threat over the wayward son, what is the lesson for educators back then, now and the future?
The basic idea I can relate to as an educator is to educate while looking “on the basis of his end”, meaning, educate while looking toward a person’s future. Just as you need to believe in them and see the positive potential within them, you also need to demand them to work and change their negative and harmful habits.
If we don’t teach the wayward daughter who drinks in excess to moderate her behavior, we will find her driving under the influence when she grows older.
If we don’t educate our male children to be respectful of women, we will raise the risk of them being involved in sexual misconduct in the future.
If we don’t demand that our politicians stop poisoning the public discourse with hateful vitriol as we head to the voting booth, they will never learn their lesson, and they will continue to spew hate.
Without the constant consideration of where the education process will lead us, we cannot carry it out properly.
May all the educators, teachers, students and participants have an enlightening and meaningful year, and may we here in Israel have a positive and productive celebration of democracy this Tuesday
Yuval Linden is the Director of Gap Year Programs at BINA.