It says in this week’s parsha, Devarim 22:8, “If you build a house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if a fallen one falls from it.” The Me’am Loez comments: That when a person is ready to build a new house, at the second the builders begin the construction, he should say, “I am having this house built so as to have a place to live in, and I will thus be able to serve Hashem.” He will then have help from Heaven, and holiness will rest upon the house.
When a person builds a house for the sake of Hashem, it is certain that Hashem will assist him, as it happened during the building of the first Beis HaMikdash in the time of Shlomo HaMelech. Our Chochamim say that the stones for the first Beis HaMikdash miraculously placed themselves in their proper places. Why did Shlomo HaMelech merit this very great miracle? The answer is that Shlomo HaMelech built the first Beis HaMikdash for the sake of Hashem as the pasuk states in Melachim 5:19, “Therefore I have decided to build a House for the Name of Hashem, my G-d.”
So too, if a person says at the time that he commences to build, “I am building this house in order to serve Hashem,” the holy influences will help in a concrete way. Actually, before a person does anything, he should say “I am doing this with Hashem’s help,” and Hashem Himself will then help him. This is what the pasuk means in Mishlei 3:6 “In all your ways know Him, and He will smooth your paths.” This means that one should know Hashem with each and every action he does, because He is the one Who gives you the strength.
When a person merits that the Shechinah rests in his house and on his actions, the powers of impurity will run from him. Whenever there is help from Hashem, the powers of impurity have no permission to effect change. Everything in this house will be protected from any negative influences, in fulfillment of the pasuk as it says in Tehillim 91:10 “No evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your tent.”
Therefore, if one constantly learns Torah in one’s home, the proximity of the Shechinah keeps things that are unholy from the house. This is also true by a person who learns Torah constantly preventing him from falling into the Yetzer Hara’s trap thus keeping him pure. The lesson is to strengthen learning Torah at home and to keep oneself occupied by having Torah thoughts throughout the day.
This week’s parsha deals with the laws of the Ben Sorer u’Moreh which is loosely translated as a wayward and rebellious son. In such a case where the son exhibits certain traits required to be a ben soreh u’moreh, the Torah says that he’s given the death penalty. However, none of his actions warrant such a penalty. Rather, the reason he’s put to death isn’t because of what he has done, but because of what he will do in the future.
This is seemingly very difficult to understand. We learn in Sefer Breishis by the Parsha of Yishmael that a person is only judged by his present actions. How is it then justifiable to kill a young teen based on what we perceive he’ll do?
The Ibn Ezra gives an explanation to the ben sorer u’moreh which seemingly answers the question. He says that a ben sorer u’moreh’s biggest problem isn’t the sins he’s committed in the past, rather there’s a much deeper and fundamental issue. All the requirements the Torah gives are just ways to reveal to us the ben sorer u’moreh‘s outlook on life. He doesn’t care at all about good deeds, or service to HaShem; his sole drive and motivation for his actions comes from a belief that the focal point of life is to derive as much enjoyment as possible from Olam Hazeh. A person like this will do whatever he can to give himself just as few more drops of enjoyment. It could be the desire to be licentious, or to experience the thrill of murder. This person doesn’t differentiate between right and wrong, nothing matters besides for his personal pleasure. Such a person, the Torah says to be killed now, because a person with such an outlook has no hope in the future.
I think there’s a very big mussar to be learnt out of this issue. Often times, the worst things about a person aren’t the actual sins he commits, but the deep seeded roots where those actions came from.
We’re now in the month of Elul, a time for some much needed reflection about the past year. I don’t know with a certainty about everyone else, but every year at around this time I try to make a few resolutions to change for the better. And although I almost unilaterally start off strong, over time the “yamim noraim” inspiration fades and the resolutions become more infrequent, until the point where I reflect a year later, wondering “what happened?” What’s pshat? Why is it so hard to keep a simple resolution to be better?
I think the answer is what we learn from the ben sorer u’moreh. When someone does something which isn’t entirely appropriate, it’s normally not an isolated incident. Normally, there’s a deep seeded root inside the person which caused him to act that way. And without ever changing the root, no matter how many resolutions one makes, they’ll never stick.
In order to be able to build on something, it requires a strong foundation. If a person tries to build a house on foundations of playdoh, the house probably won’t last very long. In order to build a building, the foundation needs to be even stronger. The same is true with all of us. In order to really grow and build ourselves, the deep seeded foundation of our Emunah in HaShem needs to be strong. It’s the most important thing to strengthen. When a person sins, it isn’t merely because he felt a desire which he succumbed to, rather because at that precise moment, he forgot HaShem was watching. He forgot he was standing in front of his Father, his King.
We learn from the ben sorer u’moreh how bad it can be when someone’s roots are polluted. The real lesson to us, which is increasingly relevant as we approach Rosh Hashana, is to look deep down and asses what our essence is. What do we attribute importance to? What’s our outlook on life? Only when we’re able to say with confidence that we truly want to get closer to HaShem can we begin to change. Only when we know which way our heart really points can we be confident we’re heading in the right direction.
I was recently in Miami, Florida, for my niece’s wedding. We were driving back to return our rental car next to the airport and catch our return flight to New Jersey. Like everyone else today who needs directions, we typed the address into our phone’s GPS. We dutifully obeyed our GPS and exited, only to hear, “recalculating!” We proceeded back onto the highway in the opposite direction the navigator initially told us and again it said “recalculating.” The third time we heard “recalculating,” we lost all faith in the GPS. We called the rental car agency and discovered it was one of those quirky addresses that doesn’t register correctly with any navigating system and we had to correct our course.
This story is a powerful illustration for a fundamental lesson in Parshas Ki Seitzei, which makes a bar/bas mitzvah teen very nervous. This is the parsha containing the issue of “ben sorer u’moreh,” the wayward child who is executed for his wanton behavior and actions.
What terrible crime did this wayward child commit to warrant capital punishment? The Ramban says it was actually two crimes. First, he cursed his parents and rebelled against them. Second, he was a glutton for pleasure, transgressing the mitzvah of “Kedoshim tihyu, “You shall be holy,” and the mitzvah of “U’bo sidbokun,” you shall cleave to Hashem.
Seriously though, how can we convict a 13-year-old child for not possessing these high levels of holiness and cleaving to Hashem constantly, when most adults have not yet achieved these goals?
Rebbe Shimon tells us (Sanhedrin 71), “In reality, there never was and never will be a “wayward child” due to all the extremely specific conditions that must be followed to be classified as a ben sorer u’moreh. The reason why the Torah relates to us the whole topic, is to learn the topic and receive reward.” This is most enigmatic – a very detailed mitzvah with no practical application.
Rashi tells us that the crimes of this young adult currently are not deserving of capital punishment; however, he is being judged based on his future actions, for he is destined to become a murderer. Why are we so confident that this young adult will end up a murderer? The Ibn Ezra clarifies it’s clear that this individual’s interest is solely to indulge himself in this world; therefore, he will become an addict of pleasure and will stop at nothing to feed his addiction, even murder! Rav Chaim Friedlander explains that this is the purpose of our learning the topic of ben sorer u’moreh– to teach us the fundamental concept that we are judged based on our agenda and our goals in life.
This is really one of the main reasons why it’s hard for us to relate to Elul and Rosh Hashanah. Rav Yisrael Salanter points out that we get used to doing things out of habit and live our lives on autopilot, assuming that we are going in the right direction, although that may not be the case.. Our final destination is not going to change unless we change our habits, or even better, we change the GPS destination which forms our aspirations and goals for life. Becoming a better person requires looking ahead. We need to see where we are heading. Only then can we can evaluate our goals and possibly change direction for the better.
Last week there was a solar eclipse that was all the talk everywhere, my family included. Many people traveled long distances to states in which they would have a better view of the entire eclipse. Why all the excitement? Because it was out of the ordinary. We go to sleep and do not think twice whether the sun will rise the next day. We assume the world will continue in its natural path. Therefore, when something happens which is totally different from our expectations, it catches our attention!
As we approach Rosh Hashana, Hashem has set up a reminder for us that things need to change. The daylight hours get shorter, the nights become cooler, and around this area, the leaves start to change color. Change is in the air. This is our signal to re-evaluate our goals, fit more quality time into our days, and embrace and act on the opportunities that come with meaningful change. May we all meet with success in this holy endeavor.