Parshat Ki Tetze (5770)

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As we read this weeks parsha it is hard not to be puzzled by the strongly contrasting topics: On the one hand we read of the mitzvah of shiluach ha’ken (Deut 22:6) – the importance of shooing away a mother bird before taking the eggs from her nest (to eat), and on the other hand we read the commandment to put to death a ben sorer u’moreh – a teenage boy who shows rebellious and gluttonous behaviour (Deut 21:18) – a stark contrast!

So which is the character trait we are meant to cultivate: the gentle compassion for a mother bird about to lose her eggs to make someone’s breakfast, or the draconian attitude it seems we need to mete out the death penalty to this young teenager, cutting him off before he turns into the violent criminal he seems destined to become?

Our Sages actually tell us in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin) that this death penalty never took place – ever. In the Oral Law there are so many additional legal requirements for conviction that it becomes impossible ever to actually indict this teenage boy and have him killed. He must have stolen a certain amount, he must also have eaten an excessive amount of meat and wine, he must have been warned of the death penalty before witnesses, and a myriad other details.

So why mention it in the Torah if it never happened?

It seems that the ben sorer u’moreh is listed in the Torah as a deterrent and as a lesson in priorities. Yes we must show compassion to all mankind, and to all of G-d’s creations: we must not upset a mother bird, and we must feed our animals before we feed ourselves: we may not even cut down a fruit tree for a destructive purpose. We must train ourselves to be very compassionate – but we must also beware not to be blinded by it. Compassion can lead people to ignore some terrible things. When a Nazi war-criminal is caught and he is now stooped and elderly and harmless looking, suddenly we feel sorry for him.  Says the Midrash,If you are kind to the cruel, you will end up being cruel to the kind.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

Shabbat Shalom


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