Leaving our expectations for a dose of reality


Here’s a tough one — what about stoning a rebellious kid?

When a man has a son who is stubborn and a rebel one who does not listen to the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and they discipline him and he still does not listen to them, then his father and his mother are to grab him and drag him to the town elders, in the gates of his place, and they are to say to the town elders our son is stubborn and a rebel, he does not listen to our voice he is a glutton and a drunkard, then all the men of the town are to pelt him with stones, so that he dies [what?!] so shall you burn the evil out of your midst [oh – my – God] and all Israel will hear and be awed. [Deut. 23:18 ff.]

I don’t believe this for a minute. This is like threatening your kid with reform school in my day or detention — who actually got sent to reform school? [Well, I know someone but I may have made that up to scare my kids].

The Rabbis said: the stoning of a son who is stubborn and a rebel never happened and never will happen.

Why then was this law written in the Torah?

It was put in the Torah so we can study it and receive reward for our study (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 71a). Meaning: we should talk about it because there may have been a time. there may be a time to come, when you want to strangle your kid. You gotta pause. Lousy good-for-nothing kid, so-and-so ungrateful no-count lowlife kid — talk it through, think it through, let the heat dissipate.

Your reward — find your quiet, make your peace — it may not even involve your kid, it’s something you had to do. There’s your reward: doing your work independently of that good-for-nothing lowlife kid of yours.

The Talmud continues (Sanhedrin 71a): Rabbi Yonatan said, you are wrong. It did happen. I saw one [a kid who was stoned to death] and sat on his grave.

If we thought we were out of this story with our enlightened set of parenting strategies intact, consider this picture of Rabbi Yonatan sitting on a grave — back to the verse, the end specifically. All Israel will hear and be awed.

Rabbi Yonatan is saying, Look — I don’t know whose grave I was sitting on but the point is when my kid hears about it — he and all Israel will be awed, moved — look I’m trying to run a household here.

We don’t really act this way but we do resort to lesser strategies once in a while.

We get frustrated. Our kids aren’t behaving the way we would have them behave. Parenting is not the set of neat and clever responses the books recommend. Family peace? Hey, it’s not happening the way it was supposed to.

What we are reaching for is a way to return — ah, Ki Teitzei — to sanity. The name of the portion, it means: when you leave, when we leave our expectations over the great messes that our lives have become, when we cease to compare the what-it-is to the what-we-wanted or the-way-it-was-supposed-to-be. When we leave — Ki Teitzei — when we leave behind all the supposed-to’s of our existence, get free of them — then our kids — supposed to behave this way, our husbands our wives — supposed to act this way, ourselves — supposed to enjoy our lives this way — when we ki teitzei/when we leave, if we leave, our expectations where they belong in a shoebox under the bed then we are free to deal with life, with reality, with our children, our families, the way they are, not the way they are supposed to be.

The way they are: the great what-it-is. We have ki teitzei’d — we have left the condition of supposed-to-be and have entered the holy condition of what-it-is. Now we are free to be alive to life in its complexity, its messiness, independent of our effort to manage, cajole, contain, we are alive to life as it presents itself to us not as we would have designed it but the way-it-is. We are now truly co-creators with God in the full catastrophe of existence and we are free.

O God, forgive us our lofty expectations and less lofty strategies, we are all learning, studying the world so we may receive the merits of knowledge and understanding.

We’re doing — the best — we can. Amen.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.