September 3, 2012
Dvar Torah – Ki Titzei (Hanoch’s Bar Mitzvah)
The Torah portion that Hanoch read this past Shabbat—כי תצא—is filled with an impressive variety of positive commandments—מצוות תעשה—mostly concerning proper ethical conduct, including respect for human dignity, practicing דרך ארץ, דרכי שלום, consideration for the feelings of others, plus a whole lot more.
Yet no sooner do we begin reading the parsha, when we stumble upon the obscure and perhaps troubling story about the בן סורר ומורה – an insubordinate and defiant son.
Now, the question you’re probably asking yourselves is, what would בן סורר ומורה possibly have to do with Hanoch Egyes?
The answer is, of course, not much at all.
Those of you familiar with Hanoch are aware of what a warm, caring, and kind person he is.
But the question remains as to why the laws concerning בן סורר ומורה appear, of all places, in this parsha.
What could we possibly learn from this mitzvah? From this unusual story? What do we know about בן סורר ומורה?
Well, for one thing, we know that the law was almost never actually practiced.
In fact, חז”ל saw to it that so many fences would be built around the law, that it would be virtually impossible to implement.
What’s more, the Gemara states “בן סורר ומורה, לא היה, ולא עתיד להיות”.
So why are we telling this story now, of all times?
The parsha begins with the words “כי תצא למלחמה על איובך”.
In the literal sense, the Torah is referring to an actual military operation.
But I believe there’s another war going on here, perhaps on a deeper level. What kind of war would that be? Who is the enemy? And what does it have to do with בן סורר ומורה?
Beyond the mitzvoth that we can easily identify in the Torah, there is, I believe, a greater imperative—דרישה מוסרית—without which the mitzvoth can become rather meaningless.
That is the ongoing struggle against our own aloofness (אדישות), where the enemy is the easy pull toward falling in line with a bad culture, a תרבות רעה.
Some of you may even be asking, where is the תרבות טוב today, if there is any left at all. Is the lack of תרבות טוב a problem unique to our time, or is it just a question of scale?
Honestly, I’m really not sure. Though I would propose that the lesson בן סורר ומורה teaches us today is one of individual responsibility.
That means making conscious decisions to be a good person in a bad world.
Or perhaps, a good person in a good world where you just have to work a little harder to find the good.
What a wonderful message for arriving at the age of mitzvoth.
Hanoch, you’re coming of age at time and in a place when there’s really no one who can force you to perform mitzvoth.
Why is that significant?
Because it means only you can make a conscious decision to be a responsible, considerate, observant Jewish adult, and an upstanding participant in the Jewish community.
Baruch Hashem, you’re off to a great start.
But the decision to do the right thing —now and throughout life—all too often means going in contradiction—בניגוד— to what many others around you are doing.
That challenge never stops. We face it almost every day.
In his book Notes on the Weekly Torah Portion, Yeshayahu Leibovitz draws an analogy between the mitzvot of בן סורר ומורה and the mitzvah of putting up a railing—מעקה—on a roof.
The Torah says כי תבנה בית חדש, ועשית מעקה לגגך, ולא תשים דמים בביתך כי ייפול הנופל ממנו””
Now why are we commanded to ensure public safety?
If one believes in השגחה פרטית, if God decides that someone’s going to fall off a roof, then what can we do to prevent that from happening?
Since we can’t see events from God’s perspective, we’re commanded to take individual responsibility and prevent potential harm from occurring.
This theme of individual responsibility to behave ethically can be applied to so many of the mitzvoth appearing throughout your parsha.
The laws governing what kind of property can be seized in place of unpaid debts. Treatment of women captured in war.
Fugitive slaves. Ethical treatment of animals.
Paying employees their wages on time. Handling the body of an executed criminal. Laws against usury (נשך ומרבית).
And rules governing proper conduct between men and women. And so much more.
We’re living in a very special time. Not necessarily the easiest time. But one where we can see miracles before us every day.
Hanoch, as you begin your life as a Jewish adult, remember these moral lessons that your parsha teaches.
No one—except you and you yourself— can make you do the right thing.
Of course, we’re here to help you along the way. Though starting today, the responsibility is really yours.
The parsha ends with a call to blot out the memory of Amalek, as one of God’s expectations of us in order to ensure our safety in the Land.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that there’s always a direct reward or clear benefit given for performing mitzvoth and conducting yourself the right way.
The reward is the mitzvah itself; to walk with God, to struggle with the responsibility of being a mensch in this world.
To know that you’re constantly striving to become the kind of human being that the Torah had in mind when God gave us these laws.
I love you son.