In 1997, the most-played song on Classic Rock radio was “Carry on My Wayward Son”, by a band named “Kansas”. It seems almost obligatory, therefore, in the week which we read in Parshat Ki Teitzei about the wayward son, that the Kansas City Kollel discuss the issue as well.
The parsha provides a detailed prescription of how to treat a rebellious child. However, despite the extended discussion, the Talmud declares a puzzling sentiment: “There never has been a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’, and there never will be. Why then was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward” (Sanhedrin 71a).
It seems somewhat strange that the Torah would devote multiple verses to the topic, only to tell us that it’s theoretical. After all, is the Torah not a blueprint for how the world operates? Is it not a guide for how one should live life? What is the life lesson if we know it never happens?!
Towards that end, perhaps we can read the Talmudic statement with a different emphasis. While it is true – that no child is ever rebellious enough to deserve the death penalty- do we not know children who seem extraordinarily naughty? Many of us have probably encountered terrible incidents of bullying, name-calling, or incessant misbehavior in one context or another. Perhaps we have even said to ourselves that a child will grow into an X, Y, or Z kind of criminal; that they have no hope; that they will never positively contribute to the world.
The Talmud does recommend that we discuss the topic of the wayward son. But we should study this: It has never happened and it will never happen. Work diligently to maintain the perspective that no matter how terrible a child seems, we can always help them improve. There is hope for every child. We may worry at times when our own child throws a tantrum. Perhaps we grow angry at a bully we witness at his or her school. But never should we think that any child is hopeless. It may take more effort, it may require more sensitivity, but they can always grow.
In this way, we can truly live by the creed of Kansas, but more importantly, the Torah: Carry on with the wayward son. Never stop teaching them, helping them, and caring for them. When we study and know this, we will truly receive reward.