Raising teens was a challenge in biblical times, too

Ki Tetze
Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19
Isaiah 54:1-10

“Please excuse the absence of my daughter. She has been suffering from a severe head cold. Since she has been home she has consumed 18 doughnuts, three quart containers of orange juice, a half-gallon of cranberry juice, four 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke, about 30 Pop-Tarts and all of the family’s holiday candy.

“MTV has been blasting incessantly. I had to extend my credit with the phone company due to the volume of her telephone calls. The house is knee-deep in used Kleenex. Today, FedEx delivered seven Chia Pets and four boxes containing other impulse-buying items she ordered from the Home Shopping Network.

“With the thermostat set at 78 degrees, I need an extra fuel delivery, and the wallpaper has peeled off the bathroom wall as a result of her hourly ‘therapeutic’ sauna baths. Our cat is in a state of shock from being repeatedly bombarded with Hall’s mentholated cough drops.

“Even though she is not exactly 100 percent yet, she will attend school today. Please do not send her home unless she lapses into a coma. I need a break.”

Although parents of teenagers can relate to this humorous absentee note, it also raises their anxiety levels about how they and their teenagers can survive adolescence.

However amusing this note may seem, it nevertheless provides a foil for a deeper appreciation of the draconian measures our biblical ancestors, outlined for dealing with a ben sorare ou’moreh —”a disobedient and rebellious child” — featured in Ki Tetze, this week’s Torah portion.

“If a man has a disloyal and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant: He does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the men of the town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Although it is unlikely that such an act of capital punishment was ever carried out, there may be some comfort in the knowledge that conflict between adolescents and parents is not new. Ki Tetze helps a student of Torah realize that raising a child in any age is enough to make a parent pray, if not drink.

Parents can try to force their children to ask permission before they leave home, call when they are going to be late, promise to use caution when they drive a car, but they can only hope and pray that their children will exercise restraint, do things with moderation, think before they act, develop healthy fears and good values, and have the good sense to say no when being pressured. And they can hope that their adolescents learn from their formative experiences in a way that bolsters their resolve, strengthens their character and makes them into adults who lead lives of purpose and meaning.

All parents worry about their children’s judgment as well as issues of separation, defiance and self-assertion — struggles that parents confront in every generation. Some parents are disappointed when their children choose lives that seem alien to them. That is why reading can help parents realize that the issues confronting them today are not new; they are the same ones people have struggled with from time immemorial.

Ki Tetze is a reminder that adolescence is a stormy time and that parents need to pray a lot — pray that they and their children will survive the vagaries of growing up in order that their children may enter adulthood unscathed. As they do this, parents need to fasten their seatbelts, hold their breaths and hope that the ride ahead is not too bumpy.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.