By: Deborah Abecassis Warshawsky
I’m sure you’ve been there. Granola bar is unwrapped, Ziploc bag of pretzels is finished, drippy nose is wiped with a tissue, and then, the garbage is handed over to you, the parent: “Here, I’m done.” Uh what? When did mother become synonymous with garbage receptacle? How did I manage to teach them not to throw their garbage on the floor, and yet fail to convey the message to use their eyes to find a garbage can and their feet to walk over to it and dispose of their garbage themselves? Surely, they don’t hand their garbage to the adults at school, right? (Right?!) So why does this sense of responsibility not carry over to when my children are with me? What expectations of my children do I (not) reinforce regularly?
In this week’s parashah, Ki Teitze, amidst a variety of laws related to issues that arise within a family, the Torah tells us that if we find a lost ox, we must return it to its owner or – if you don’t know its owner or its owner is far from you – you must hold onto the ox until the owner comes looking for it. And lest you think only oxen wander off, the Torah then says, “So shall you do for his donkey, and so shall you do for his garment, and so shall you do for any lost article of your brother that may become lost from him and you find it: you cannot hide yourself.”
Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, an 11th-century French Jewish Bible commentator and the most influential Jewish exegete of all time) explains that “you cannot hide yourself” does not mean you cannot hide from the fact that you found the object and keep it as your own; that would be stealing, which is a prohibition that includes lost objects. Rather, Rashi explains, “you cannot hide yourself,” refers to the time before you pick up the lost object; you cannot ‘hide your eyes” and pretend you don’t see it. You are commanded not to simply keep on walking.
The Torah recognizes that the responsibility to return a lost object can be burdensome. A lost ox – like a lost cat, for example – would need to be fed and sheltered at the finder’s expense until the owner is located. A lost wallet requires, maybe, a phone call, or a trip to the police station. A lost sweatshirt has to be carried out of your way to the lost-and -found. At the same time, the Torah acknowledges that human nature is such that we do not always welcome these added responsibilities. It would be easier to just not notice the lost object. It would be easier not to see the kippah left in the library or the wet mitten lying in a snow bank in the school yard and have to bring them to the office. Rashi clarifies that part of the Torah’s stipulation is that we are, in fact, commanded to take responsibility for ourselves and our surroundings, even before we have identified an object as lost.
Of course, understanding what it means to be responsible is something we strive to teach our children, as we struggle to learn it for ourselves, every day. How often is it just easier to take the garbage from my child and throw it out myself, rather than show her where the garbage can is, convince her she can walk there herself and return safely, insist she is capable, and then insist again, and then wait patiently while she tests my resolve. When we are shuttling our children from activity to appointment to play date, watching the clock and trying to maximize our efficient use of every minute, these lessons in responsibility are time-consuming and exhausting. But as the Torah, and life experience, show us, they are necessary for our children’s development, for the well-being of the family unit and even for the benefit of the larger community.
The Torah teaches in this parashah that should a man have “a wayward and rebellious son,” who does not listen to his parents, even when they discipline him, they should bring him to the elders of the city, and the men of the city will stone the son until he dies. It is a fascinating, albeit harsh, section of text that was parsed and dissected by rabbis for generations to understand the nuances of the words and the ensuing and reasonable application of the law. Putting aside the horrifying stoning of an undisciplined child, the process by which the parents must confront and address the problematic behaviour of their child is interesting. The child is defined as “wayward and rebellious” when he “does not listen to the voice of his father AND the voice of his mother.” Moreover, the text specifies that BOTH the father and the mother must bring the child before the elders.
One modern commentary suggests that specific mention of the voice of the father and the voice of the mother implies that the parents of this troublesome child have conflicting messages and unclear expectations in their parenting, and this lack of a united front leads to the “wayward and rebellious” behaviour. By emphasizing that both parents must “grasp” the child and take him to the elders we learn that the parents must take responsibility for their child together and be undivided in their evaluation of their child’s behaviour and its necessary consequences. Both mother and father have the responsibility to raise their children with a set of values they both uphold, to support each other in securing these values in the behaviour of their children and to discipline appropriately and uniformly.
When all these elements are in place and we have examined our own potential contribution to our child’s troubles, the Torah shows us 2 important facts of parenting: The first is that help is available. The community and its leaders will support you for the benefit of the child, your family and society, as the text says after the stoning, “and all Israel shall hear and they shall fear.” In other words, the consequences for this child serve as an example and a reminder to the families of the community.
The second fact the Torah teaches about parenting in this discussion of the rebellious child is that the best remedy may not always be easy or palatable. Rashi and the rabbis in the Talmud explained that this harsh sentence was mandated for a seemingly light offence because of the child’s potential in the future to wreak havoc on and do evil to his family and his people. (It is worthwhile to note that many believe the rabbis interpreted so many conditions and particular circumstances to the application of the law as stated in the text, that no child’s behaviour ever qualified for stoning.) We may not always like the solutions presented to us to help our children and ourselves. We may find them difficult, even frightening, to implement, but ultimately, the Torah shows us, we also have a responsibility to trust those from whom we seek help.
As responsible parents, it is extremely painful to admit that we are at a loss when it comes to our children. It is even more painful to admit that the undesirable behaviours may be a consequence of our own actions and habits. My children learned to hand me their garbage because I am quick to accommodate their every need. When they are with me, they follow like ducklings, with no need to look left or right, knowing that I have everything under control. The Torah teaches us to consider that being responsible has many implications and applications. We cannot “hide our eyes” from the consequences of our actions and our inactions, and while our children promise to be responsible at school, we must define for ourselves, for our families and for our community what that responsibility looks like. Only with consistency and unity and trust, do we and our children grow, develop, and learn to emulate the values of good citizenship to which we aspire.
Discussion Questions for the Shabbat Table:
- The Torah commands us to return a lost object, if we find one.
- Do you find lost objects at school?
- What do you do when you see them?
- Why is it important to take care of other people’s stuff if they lose it?
- How do we learn to be responsible for our own things?