This article first appeared on genaleph.org
As we continue to reap the rewards of studying the Sugya of the Ben Sorer U’Moreh let us turn our attention to a fascinating halacha. The Ben Sorer U’Moreh can only be convicted if the parents do not forgive their child. This is a very difficult halacha to understand. The Ben Sorer U’Moreh is executed not because of what he has done (gluttony and alcoholism do not warrant capital punishment) but because of what he will do. Chazal tell us that the Ben Sorer U’Moreh is destined to become a murderer. How then can we absolve the Ben Sorer U’Moreh simply because his parents have forgiven him? We are ostensibly allowing a murderer off death row!
In order to explain this, we must first explore the nature of forgiveness. Let us imagine the following scenario: Avraham and Sarah are a married couple. Like many married couples they disagree from time to time. In the course of a particularly heated argument, Reuven says something deeply hurtful to Sarah. Later Reuven sincerely apologizes to Sarah for the way that he spoke with her in the heat of the moment. Sarah forgives him because she knows that this is not a true representation of Reuven. He is a better man than that. It was only because of the dynamic of that particular moment that he acted inappropriately. In other words, the gift of forgiveness is that we see the other person for who they truly are. We let them know that they are better than their lowest moments.
Healthy homes are able to hold conflict. With so many complex family dynamics it is inevitable that people will bump into one another. As parents we must role model forgiveness for our children. Children who see their parents forgive each other, who see their parents forgive their siblings, develop a worldview that people are essentially good despite their sometimes-errant behavior. Perhaps more importantly, a child who belies that others are essentially good can believe that about themselves as well. Children grow up with so much toxic shame. They conflate what they do with who they are. In the words of Dr. Brene Brown, “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” Dr. Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” If our homes are places of forgiveness than our children can learn to forgive themselves, access a deeper and truer version of themselves and ultimately take important steps into becoming healthy and productive members of society.
Returning to our Ben Sorer U’Moreh we have in front of us a child who is exhibiting signs of dysfunctional behavior. A parent who cannot forgive their child is defining their child by their inappropriate behavior. A child who is raised in a home that is saturated with toxic shame will inevitably become the murderer we fear and must be taken out of society before they do significant damage. On the other hand, a child who is forgiven is being raised in a home where his parents can see through to his inner goodness and gives him permission to do the same. Armed with the knowledge that he remains worthy of love and connection despite his misdeeds he becomes open to change. Hope is contagious. The parent’s hope is transmitted to the child and ultimately even to Beis Din. We remain hopeful that this child will yet become someone great and are not concerned that he will harm others.
In our last two articles we have explored the passuk:
וְאָֽמְר֞וּ אֶל־זִקְנֵ֣י עִיר֗וֹ בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙ סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֖עַ בְּקֹלֵ֑נוּ זוֹלֵ֖ל וְסֹבֵֽא
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.”
We can now offer a third insight into the words, בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙, our son. They are not only identifying the child to Beis Din, but they are also declaring that despite everything he has done, this child remains our son. A parents love and undying hope for their child ultimately becomes his saving grace and his catalyst for change.
Chazal tell us that Menashe, the King of Klal Yisrael, was in such a state of spiritual abyss that for Hashem to bring him to Teshuva he had to dig out a pathway beneath the Kisei HaKavod. Rav Zaitchik zt’l explains this to mean that Hashem “dug in” to Menashe until he discovered his essential point of goodness that remained unscathed. Once Menashe had access to his truest self his journey towards Teshuva had begun. And while it took three years to do Teshuva (after fifty-five years of sinning) it began with the knowledge that he was forgivable. The method in which Hashem forgives Menashe is the blueprint for how we can forgive our own children. We are obligated to chastise our children, but we must also forgive them. The path to Teshuva is sometimes long and arduous but it begins with a parent’s love.
 Sanhedrin 88b