By Rav David Silverberg
The Torah in Parashat Ki-Teitzei introduces the law of ben sorer u-moreh – the “wayward son,” referring to a thirteen-year-old boy who disobeys his parents and conducts himself in a gluttonous manner, for which he is to be killed. The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (71a)teaches that there never was a situation of ben sorer u-moreh. Indeed, so many detailed requirements must be met for this halakha to practically apply, including several far-fetched sets of circumstances, that it is all but impossible for such a thing to actually happen. Hence, the concept of the ben sorer u-moreh has often been viewed as a model of the very opposite of how the Torah envisions a young Jewish person’s conduct and education, as opposed to a practical halakhic directive.
One of the conditions mentioned by the Mishna (Sanhedrin 70a) for this law to take effect is that the youngster must eat a certain quantity of meat, and that this meat must be kosher. If the child consumes forbidden food, even in very large quantities, he does not fall under the category of ben sorer u-moreh, and this law does not apply to him.
Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l noted how this law reflects the importance of living a generally noble and sacred life, beyond the observance of the particulars of Halakha. As the Ramban famously discusses in his commentary to the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim, it is possible for a person to strictly adhere to every halakhic detail while living a life that is very far from the noble, sacred lifestyle which the Torah demands. One can spend his life indulging in physical pleasure and vanity without technically transgressing a single halakhic prohibition or neglecting any halakhic requirement. Torah life requires not only strict compliance with the code of Halakha, but also living a life of meaning, nobility, and spiritual ambition. And thus the ben sorer u-moreh, the prototype of the opposite of Torah life, is somebody who strictly follows the Torah’s dietary laws, but is a glutton – to emphasize the need to focus on both the “trees” and the “forest,” to carefully and meticulously observe halakhic details without neglecting the broader values and general modes of conduct the Torah requires.
The Rambam, in a famous passage in Hilkhot Teshuva (7:3), clarifies that repentance is required not only for particular sinful acts, but also for negative character traits:
Do not think that repentance is [relevant] only for transgressions that involve an action, such as sexual immorality, theft and burglary. Rather, just as a person must repent for these, so must he examine his negative traits, and repent for anger, enmity, jealousy, frivolity, the pursuit of money and honor, and the pursuit of food and the like. One must repent for everything.
Teshuva is relevant not only to particular infractions, but also to inappropriate and undisciplined conduct that may be technical permissible, but is directly at odds with Torah ideals. We must be sensitive not only to the specific dos and don’ts of Halakha, but also to the broader behaviors and modes of conduct which the Torah expects us to embrace, and ensure that we apply these ideals in our day-to-day lives.
Originally appears on VBM