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Dysfunctional Relationships

Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Parshat Ki Tetzei starts with war and ends with war. It begins with a man in the heat of battle who spies an attractive woman from the opposing side, and ends with instructions regarding the ultimate battle with Amalek. In between, the portion is packed with commandments; in fact, more commandments are found in this parsha than any other.

Although tradition may discourage us from seeking out the reasons or rationale for mitzvot, here in Deuteronomy, we may glean insights into certain mitzvot from their context.1 Thus, the Sages discerned a cause-and-effect relationship among the first three topics in the parsha: a beautiful wife, taken in battle, will lead to a situation in which a man has one favored wife and one whom he rejects, which in turn leads to the "rebellious son." 2

As the Sages see it, the rebellious child does not develop in a vacuum; he is the result of a dysfunctional home. This child's mother was wrested from her family and homeland. Her value system would surely be at odds with that of her Jewish husband. The dissonance felt by this child would most likely be the cause of his own antipathy to Jewish mores and tradition. Additionally, this child seems genetically challenged, as it were: The father practiced poor self-control and sought immediate gratification. Is it any wonder that this child cannot exercise self-restraint? 3

Interestingly enough, the Rabbis felt that there never was and never would be a "real" rebellious child.4 This is not to say that such a child never existed.5 Rather, the courts could never successfully prosecute and adjudicate such a case, due to the myriad conditions required for a conviction:6 One of the conditions for establishing guilt is that the rebellious son does not listen "to his father and to his mother":

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not listen to them. (Deuteronomy 21:18)

The Talmud explains that the rebellious child will only be guilty if both parents speak with one united voice:

MISHNAH. If his father desires [to have him punished], but not his mother, or the reverse, he is not treated as a 'stubborn and rebellious son', unless they both desire it. R. Yehudah said: 'If his mother is not fit for his father, he does not become a 'stubborn and rebellious son'.

GEMARA. What is meant by 'NOT FIT'? Shall we say that she is forbidden to him under penalty of extinction or capital punishment at the hand of Beth din; but after all, his father is his father, and his mother is his mother? - But he means not physically like his father. It has been taught likewise: R. Yehudah said: If his mother is not like his father in voice, appearance and stature, he does not become a rebellious son. Why so? - The Torah says, 'he will not obey our voice', and since they must be alike in voice, they must be also in appearance and stature. With whom does the following Baraitha agree: There never has been a stubborn and rebellious son, and never will be. Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 71a

The Talmud understood that the conditions for convicting a person as a 'rebellious child' are many, including, quite literally, that both parents have the same voice. The Mishna understood this stipulation more figuratively, in a manner surprisingly similar to our current ideas of effective parenting: The parents must be of one voice, not in pitch and cadence, but in content. The Mishna effectively turns the focus of scrutiny away from the rebellious child, and focuses on the parents and the messages this child received from them over the years. As a result, the child who is most likely to be rebellious due to the fractured home life, would be the very child whom the law exonerates of responsibility - not because he doesn't warrant punishment,7 but because he is not seen as necessarily responsible for his actions. In the Talmudic formulation, the child gets off on a technicality: his parents' lack of physical similarity. In the Mishnaic formulation, the child is spared because of the gap between the parents' worldviews, religious and otherwise, and their failure to effectively parent their offspring.

The theme of relationships - how to build them, how to keep them intact, and how to heal them in the event that they are damaged - can be seen as the overriding theme of the parsha. This parsha treats such diverse but related topics as marriage, divorce, rape, prostitution, and even cross-dressing. Drawing a line of thought between the particulars may help us gain insight into the larger theme.

In one particular case, a very strict limitation is placed upon interpersonal relationships. In a departure from what we have come to expect in this parsha, we need not exert ourselves in an examination of the context in order to discern some reason for the prohibition; the Torah explains the prohibition in a clear statement of rationale:

An Ammonite or Moavite shall not enter into the Congregation of God; to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the Congregation of God forever; Because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil'am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless the Almighty, your God, would not listen to Bil'am; but the Almighty, your God, turned the curse into a blessing to you, because the Almighty your God loved you. You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days forever. (Deuteronomy 23:4-7)

Amon and Moav were raised in a strange family unit: they were both the products of incest. Their mothers were sisters who got their father drunk, and seduced him in his stupor.

And Lot went up out of Zoar, and lived in the mountain, and his two daughters with him; for he feared to live in Zoar; and he lived in a cave, he and his two daughters. And the firstborn said to the younger, 'Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth; Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve the seed of our father.' And they made their father drink wine that night; and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. And it came to pass on the next day, that the firstborn said to the younger, 'Behold, I lay last night with my father; let us make him drink wine this night also; and you go in, and lie with him, that we may preserve the seed of our father.' And they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father. And the firstborn bore a son, and called his name Moav; he is the father of the Moavites to this day. And the younger, she also bore a son, and called his name Ben-ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites to this day. (Bereishit 19:30-38)

Lot, the ne'er-do-well nephew of the illustrious Avraham, saw his world crumble around him. His first tragic mistake was taking leave of Avraham: His status as the heir apparent of Avraham's fortune should have placated him, and smoothed over any ill will that had developed between the shepherds of his flocks and Avraham's shepherds. Avraham, known for his delight in taking in strangers, realized that there was only one solution for the conflict, and suggested a parting of the ways:

And there was strife between the herdsmen of Avram's cattle and the herdsmen of Lot's cattle; and the Canaanite and the Perizzite lived then in the land. And Avram said to Lot, 'Let there be no strife, I beg you, between me and you, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself, I beg you, from me; if you will take the left, then I will go to the right; or if you depart to the right, then I will go to the left. (Bereishit 13:7-9)

Avraham speaks of "left and right," normally understood as north and south, yet Lot travels eastward, to a place that reminds him of Egypt, which in itself was not known for its morality: He travels to Sodom.

And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before God destroyed Sodom and Amorrah, like the garden of God, like the land of Egypt, as you come to Zoar. Then Lot chose for himself the valley of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed east, and they separated themselves, one from the other. Avram lived in the land of Canaan, and Lot lived in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent toward Sodom. But the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinners before God. (Genesis 13:10-13)

There is something terribly wrong with a person who would leave the tent of Avraham and choose a place like Sodom. Sodom looked to him like an oasis; surely, Lot was motivated by aspirations of wealth and power. But soon Sodom was destroyed, his home gone, and even his wife was lost. He escaped with only the clothes on his back and his two daughters, products of the Sodomite educational system. These daughters each present Lot with sons, Moav and Amon, each of whom are progenitors of great nations.

These sons enter the world with a stigma: Their father/grandfather has made countless bad decisions, and their mothers instigated incest with their own father. It is not hard to surmise how such children would have felt: hurt, angry, disenfranchised, full of resentment. Yet the Torah teaches a remarkable lesson: These nations are forbidden to the Jewish people; descendents of Amon and Moav are not to be accepted as converts to Judaism. But why? Not because they are genetically inferior, or racially tainted, but "because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil'am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you."

The second half of the verse is understandable: They conspired to curse the Jews, reason enough for maintaining a healthy distance. Moreover, the "Plan B" tactic employed by Amon and Moav in their quest to destroy Israel was even more telling: The daughters of Moav were sent to seduce the men of Israel.8 Given the history and origins of these nations, we begin to understand that their basic character has not changed. This, too, could have been a valid reason for excluding them from the Congregation for all time. But this deeply disturbing incident is not cited in our parsha. Rather, it is their failure to greet us in the desert with food and drink that illustrates their unsavory character.

Why would we expect Moav to live up to this highly elevated moral standard? We can only assume that the answer lies in their forefather Lot's background: Lot grew up in Avraham's tent. Despite Lot's possible feelings of abandonment, despite Moav and Amon's feelings of rejection, despite the dysfunctional family that produced Moav and Amon, they should have known better, and behaved as any relative of Avraham knew was the proper way to deal with others - certainly with relatives. They are expected to behave as Avraham would have, to greet travelers with food and drink. In this instance, the Torah is unforgiving. We are not meant to summon up "understanding" or "empathy" for those who are products of a dysfunctional home, children born of twisted relationships, the products of incest who may have suffered ridicule, who could have blamed their parents for all their problems. The Torah rules that a positive educational message should have filtered through, and not only the negative feelings of resentment and anger. Despite their origins and upbringing, the descendents of Lot should have performed kindness.

The lesson for all of us is unavoidable: Human beings - children and adults -are often tempted to blame others for their own shortcomings, but the Torah does not allow us to place the blame with our upbringing, our parents or ancestors, or other situations beyond our control. Every human being has Free Will; this means that, along with any negative experiences, there are positive lessons that each of us may have learned from the challenges in our past. The responsible individual must choose to reject the negative and distill positive lessons from any given experience. Cycles of abuse and pain can and must be broken, as the case of Amon and Moav illustrates: Even many generations down the line, we have the right to expect moral behavior on the part of Lot's descendents. Despite Lot's many failings, despite the challenging background and difficult life-experiences of his descendents, God has expectations of those raised in the Tent of Avraham. Amon and Moav, as descendents of Lot, had so many positive lessons to learn. They were punished for choosing to focus on their own feelings of disenfranchisement, their experiences of cruelty and selfishness, their own anger and sense of fatalistic doom. For their choices, and not for their history, they are forever banned from the Congregation of God.

The case of the rebellious son teaches us that even though the trajectory of this human tragedy can be anticipated, and the law will exculpate the child, it is ultimately his own choices, his own use of Free Will, that will either uplift him or cause him to crash.

Each and every one of us, emotional scars and personal failures notwithstanding, is called upon by the laws of the Torah to make a similar choice. We are reminded, through the unlikely example of Amon and Moav, that we are all descendents of someone who grew up in the tents of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya'akov, Rachel and Leah. There is greatness within our collective memory, and therefore within our abilities and our selves. Focusing on anger and failure can easily develop into self-fulfilling, negative prophesies, leading down the path to the "rebellious son", to fractured homes and decimated communities. Alternatively, we can each make the conscious choice to learn positive lessons from our negative experiences, and raise ourselves as individuals and families to the higher moral ground prepared for us by our ancestors.



1. See Talmud Bavli Yevamot 4a.

2. See the comments of Rashi 21:11.

3. See comments of the Ibn Ezra Devarim 21:18.

4. Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin: There never has been a stubborn and rebellious son, and never will be. Why then was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward.

5. The Talmud op. cit. relates that the grave of such a child was seen by Rav Yochanan: "R. Jonathan said: I saw him and sat on his grave."

6. See Toldot Yitzchak Devarim 21:18.

7. This child himself is not punished for what he has done, rather it is anticipated how this child will continue to degenerate morally if he continues upon the same trajectory. Mishnah: A stubborn and rebellious son is tried on account of his ultimate destiny: let him die innocent and let him not die guilty.

8. Bamidbar 25:1.



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