This Shabbos, the Torah tells us of the most tragic parenting story possible; the story of the Ben Sorer U'moreh. A child, just before bar mitzvah who begins down a road that will lead to his own destruction. His parents will bring him to the Sanhedrin to be executed.
But the conditions for a boy to become a Ben Sorer U'moreh are difficult to achieve. He must have had access to a stellar education, wonderful loving parents, excellent health for himself and his parents, etc... Only when everything in his life is perfect will the Torah conclude that such a boy is liable for his actions. Absent of even one detail, he cannot be a Ben Sorer U'moreh.
This is a powerful perspective in our understanding of people in general. How often is a child (or adult) simply reacting to the challenges that they are experiencing? Are we so convinced that the negativity we’re seeing in someone is originates with them? Indeed it would seem that creating such an ideal environment is so nearly impossible that the Talmud suggests that throughout Jewish history, there has never been a Ben Sorer U’moreh.
But let’s imagine it happens. The perfect child, from a perfect family, in a perfect community who starts down the road of rebelliousness and brokenness.
Imagine the tears, the horror, the despair. No doubt, schools have been warning about this child for years. He's bounced from class to class, teacher to teacher. His parents have spend hundreds of sessions and thousands of dollars in therapy. And yet this child is apparently incurable.
Picture that child - determined, defiant, arrogant, angry. The has Sanhedrin has ruled that he must be executed, and as they are taking him away, his parents begin to cry uncontrollably. Please, they beg, despite everything, we forgive him, we want him, we love him.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (88a) tells us: “בן סורר ומורה שרצו אביו ואמו למחול לו מוחלין לו - A stubborn and rebellious son whose father and mother sought to forgive him, they can forgive him.”
The Rambam (ע׳ שיעורי ר' דוד מסכת סנהדרין עא:א) explains that this mechilah - this forgiveness - works even once they have sentenced this child to death! Even in the last moment. They can pick him up and bring him home.
This idea, while beautiful, is peculiar. A Ben Sorer U'Moreh is not judged based on what he has done, but for what he will become. His crimes are that he stole, ate too much meat and drank too much wine. Ordinarily, these crimes are not deserving of death; but the Torah declares with Devine certainly that such a child, at that age and stage of life will become a menace to himself and society. Better that he die now, rather than destroy himself and the world further.
So how could it help that his parents forgive him? His fate is sealed!
The Shem Mishmuel (תרע"א) explains:
כשאביו ואמו מוחלין לו הנה הוא עדיין נקשר בשלשלת הקודש, שוב אינו נהרג, שיכול להיות שעוד ישוב בתשובה שלימה המתקבלת - The moment that his parents forgive him, it reconnects him to the Jewish people, and his fate is not yet sealed. As long as his parents believe in him, his fate is not sealed. Only for one who is completely disconnected from Ahavas Yisrael, from Yiddishkeit, from parents and friends can we say, it's all over.
This, of course, is not limited to our relationship with our children. No Jew's life experience exists in a vacuum. When we relate to people with ahava, with kavod, with mechila, it transforms who that person is.
But this influence - the effect that our confidence has on those around us - is not only transformative, it’s the primary Avoda of our generations.
The Mishna in Avos (1:2) famously tells us:
שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים
Shimon the Tzadik was from the remnants of the Great Assembly. He would say, "On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the service and on acts of lovingkindness."
During the summer months the Sfas Emes would learn Pirkei Avos with his son, later to become the Imrei Emes. Commenting on that Mishna, the Imrei Emes explained from his father:
The world stands on three things: Torah, Avoda and Chessed. But our history has shown that we have not always worked on these pillars simultaneously. Before Matan Torah, the world did not have Torah. And since the destruction of Yerushalayim, we no longer have the Avoda of the Korbanos. Therefore, we must conclude that the world stands on either Torah, Avoda or Chessed - depending on the era.
And then the Sfas Emes explained in the name of Reb Elimelech of Lizensk: Until the time of the Arizal, the world stood on Torah. Now the world stands on Gemilus Chassadim - taking care of other people. Our job is to love each other.
So as Rosh Hashanah approaches, we so desperately want to keep our world standing. This has been the shakiest year in recent memory, and if we’d like 5781 to feel a little more solid, our Avoda is to grow in Ahavas Yisrael.
A bachur came to the Klausenberger Rebbe zt'l and told him that he was thrown out of his yeshiva. The Klausenberg Rebbe summoned for the mashgiach of the bachur’s yeshiva and asked him why he threw this bachur out. The mashgiach told him all the bad things the boy had done, and concluded, “It’s impossible to keep him in the yeshiva if he does these things.”
“That’s true,” the Rebbe agreed, “but I spoke with the bachur, and he told me that he’s ready to change.”
The mashgiach said in exasperation, “This bachur promised me a thousand times that he will improve and he never keeps his word.”
The Rebbe held his white beard and said, “Throughout the many years of my life I promised Hashem even more than a thousand times that I will improve, and I haven’t done so yet. According to what you’re saying, I should give up. But actually, as long as a Yid lives, he still has potential to change...”
This school year is going to be a challenge unlike anything we have faced before. This Tishrei and Yamim Nora’im will be unlike any we have experienced. The uncertainty of health and scheduling, coupled with the demands of distancing, mask wearing and the politicization of all of the above are all taking their toll.
None of us are immune from the anxiety of COVID-19. No one has antibodies from the past six months of insanity and uncertainty. Everyone could use a little more love, a little more understanding and a little more patience.
Our love, attention and patience for our children and each other is the cure we all so desperately need.
Or as Viktor Frankel would say: “If we take man as he is, we make him worse. If we take man as he should be, we make him capable of what he can be.”