In the 1920’s, a controversy raged in the psychoanalytic circles of Vienna between Sigmund Freud and his renegade student, Otto Rank. Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, believed the main driver of human thought and behavior was the libido. People, Freud believed, were largely driven by their physical desires. But his student Otto Rank proposed the then heretical idea that that main driver of human behavior was not one’s physical desires, but instead the tension that exists within people between their desire for individuation and connection with others. We all, Rank believed, want to firmly establish our unique individual identities, but we also all want to feel part of something greater than ourselves as well.
There is no figure in the Torah who appears to be more driven solely by their physical desires than the ben sorer u’moreh, the rebellious child. The Torah tells us that parents of a rebellious child would bring him before the elders of the town and declare, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Despite whatever failings the rebellious child exhibited, the penalty which the Torah spells out for him, death by stoning, seems to far exceed the gravity of his crimes.
According to the Talmud, the rebellious child is not being punished because of what he has done, but rather what he will do in the future. As the commentator Rashi explains, “…in the end he will squander his father’s property and seeking in vain the pleasures to which he has been accustomed, he will take his stand on the crossroads and rob people, and in some way or other make himself liable to the death penalty.” The punishment given to the rebellious child appears to be a preemptive measure, but the Talmud then explains that if the parents forgive the rebellious child he is not punished. If this child is being punished for his future actions, what difference does it make if his parents forgive him for what he has already done?
Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, the author of the classic Hassidic work, Shem M’Shmuel, argued that the only reason we can do teshuvah, to repent and return to God, is because of our connection to the patriarchs. They offer us a pathway and show us a point to which we can always return. The same, Rabbi Bornstein says, is true for the rebellious child. If his parents forgive him, if they maintain their relationship with him, despite all that he has done, he may change his ways and do teshuvah because he knows there is a place to which he can return.
The punishment of the ben sorer u’moreh, the rebellious child, that the Torah describes, does not represent a victory for justice but instead the failure of relationship. The ben sorer u’moreh does not come into being on his own, instead he is created through a combination of his own behaviors as well as the actions of those around him.
Rabbi Bornstein and Otto Rank were contemporaries, though separated by worlds and hundreds of miles it is highly unlikely that they knew of one another. Yet, despite these vast differences, they both recognized the transformative power that relationships can have on a person. Maimonides too recognized this fact, in the fourth chapter of Hilchot Teshuvah he writes that those who distance themselves from their community will struggle to repent. The way of repentance, Maimonides says, is still open to them but without the relationships necessary for growth they will be unable to walk down that path.
In our own lives, there are people who have disappointed us, let us down, and perhaps even hurt us. These experiences leave us faced with a question. Do we reach out to them and try to rebuild our relationships, or do we cut them off and turn them into the ben sorer u’moreh? As we approach Rosh Hoshanna and Yom Kippur, let us reach out to all those in our lives so together we can walk down the path of teshuvah.