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CAN YOU FORGIVE ME?

Friday, 1 September, 2017 - 9:00 am

A professor in a military class asked his students, "What is the difference between an engagement and a battle?" 

No one offered any answer. The professor was frustrated. “Didn’t anyone read the material in the book?” he thundered.

Finally, one guy spoke up. "An engagement is the thing that comes before marriage," he said, "and the battle is what follows it."

Ben was the real rebellious type that always did his own thing and didn’t care about anybody. Some said it started at birth.

At five, he was already spelling out dirty words in his Alpha-Bet cereal. At seven, Ben carved snake tattoos into his sister’s Barbie doll.

 At ten, he and a couple of friends spent entire Sunday’s in the basement listening to Grateful Dead records. It only got worse as Ben grew into his teens.

When his parents told him to turn off the TV and go to bed, Ben just laughed at them; he would stay up until 2:00 or 3:00 AM.

While all Ben’s siblings chipped in with the family’s chores, Ben ran off on his motor scooter to hang out with the troublesome kids.

Ben had so much metal pierced in his 13-year-old body that when he walked outside, every satellite dish would jam for miles around. His pants were so baggy, half the 8th grade could fit inside!

To make a long and difficult story short, Ben’s parents—who were at their wit’s end after spending all their time and

 money at those tired PTA meetings (Parents with Troubles Anonymous)—did what every other responsible parent might do with a kid like Ben who is sure to end up causing more trouble.

Jack and Shirley called the police one night while Ben was asleep, and had him handcuffed and brought to the local police station.

They told the officer to lock up their stubborn and rebellious teenager for the rest of his life with all the hardened criminals, so that he would never become a menace to society.

And as little, tough Ben was being led away with a defiant grin on his face, his parents didn’t even wave goodbye, but just turned around and went home.

Wow! What a story! Is it true? Can such a story even take place?

As bad and rebellious as a kid can get at 13 years old, no parent I know would ever lock up their kid for life (although the thought may have crossed their minds…).

Yet in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tezei, we read about just this! Says the Torah, if a really monstrous teenager gives his parents too much trouble, 

they should bring him to the High Court, not to be locked up, but to be executed so he leave this world an innocent.

How are we to understand this Torah passage? Are we to believe that parents would actually take the Torah’s advice and have their son killed if he acts like a monster in his teens!

The Zohar tells this story of the weekly portion: When G-d was transcribing the Torah to Moses, Moses did not want to include this passage. 

"G-d says to Moses, ‘write!’ To which Moses responds: ‘Master of the universe! Leave this out. Will there ever be a father or mother who would do this to their son?!

’ G-d tells Moses, ‘I understand your view, but you should still write it and you will be rewarded. 

You know [much], but I know [much] more.' Moses would not budge. He could not accept this seemingly horrible law.

Only after G-d showed Moses the deeper, mystical interpretation of this Torah law, did Moses acquiesce and transcribe it into the text. 

Only after learning that this law was attempting to convey mystical, rather than literal, truth did Moses find comfort with it.”

Moses’s sentiments were echoed centuries later by the Talmudic sages of the second century CE. 

The harshness of the law led these sages to conclude that "there never was nor ever will be a stubborn and rebellious son," i.e. this Torah law was a matter of theory rather than practice.

Why then was it written? The sages answered, “So that we should expound the law and receive reward." 

What the Talmud seems to be suggesting is that expounding this law in depth will be rewarding for parents and would enrich parenting and educational skills.

However, the very law seems absurd. A death sentence for being bad? The commentaries say such a child steals food. 

Isn’t this punishment rather excessive? Do the child’s offenses really merit capital punishment?

The Mishnah and Talmud, quoted in Rashi on our portion, respond: He is not being punished for his current sins. 

Rather, given his outrageous current behavior, the Torah testifies that it is inevitable that he will grow up to be a robber and murderer. 

 Therefore, it is better to kill him now, before he murders other people and destroys his soul. 

The patterns of his behavior demonstrate that he is doomed to a life of inevitable evil.

Nevertheless, this is absurd. All of Judaism is based on the fact that even a sinner can repent.

 Certainly a 13 year old boy who has never killed may certainly change his ways. How can we be so certain he will become a murderer?

Furthermore, the Talmud also says that if this wayward son’s parents forgive him at any point, he is forgiven and not punished. 

Yet, we just said that we don’t kill the boy because of what he did to his parents, but, as the Talmud explains, because the Torah testifies that he is destined to become a killer. 

So what does it help that his parents forgive him?

The answer is simple and profound.

Every child, even the greatest menace, is inherently holy and good and sacred. Each carries the “genes” of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Each has a Jewish soul, which is eternally connected to the Divine.

To reveal that connection, a father and mother most keep the bond with their children strong and powerful. 

When we sever our relationship with our children, even if we have good reason to do so, we deprive them of the ability to experience themselves as part of the golden, 

unbreakable chain from Abraham to today.

Says the Shem Mishmuel: When the son feels the love inherent in his parents’ willingness to forgive him, despite all of his misdeeds, he is connected to his roots.

 Since they are so holy and deep, there is strong hope that he will find the ability to transform himself.

As long as the parents do not forgive their child, they also do not allow him to forgive himself and restart his life.

 They ensure that he continues in his destructive path. 

But the moment they forgive him, the moment they can accept their child and love him despite his failures, 

they now allow him to discover his spiritual power, which is deeper than all his failings, bad choices, and inner trauma.

This is the great message the Torah is teaching us. Never ever disconnect from your child, even if it is not easy.

Keeping the chain alive and intact will allow him to see himself, ultimately, in the context of a 4,000 year chain, of which he is the next rung.

At a class a number of years ago, I was discussing the fact that each of us was sent to this Earth with an indispensable mission that imbues each person with unique qualities, 

and all the necessary faculties needed to fulfill our respective missions. Nothing is holier and more dignified than to help a person discover hidden potential,

 allowing him to actualize his unique life calling.

After my class, a striking young man approached me. As he neared, I saw that he suffered from some motor complications. 

He asked to speak with me privately. After everyone left we sat down, and he began to tell me his story. His words came out slowly, due to a speech impediment. 

He shared with me that he was born with a rare disease that affected his nervous system, and also impaired his mental capacity and growth. 

After hearing that their newborn was diagnosed with severe mental handicaps, his parents sent him away.

 Over time, it turned out that the diagnosis was not completely accurate, though he still suffered from many problems. 

However, his parents were not willing or able to handle him and they chose to have no contact with him.

His parents were very wealthy and prominent, and they provided for him to be cared for in a quality institution for children with special needs. 

But they never came to visit him, and for all practical purposes he was brought up as an orphan. 

A “privileged orphan,” he was told. All his physical needs met, except for the most important one: Unconditional love from nurturing parents.

More powerful than all his pain was the refined light shining out of this young man. He was simply an exquisite human being. 

With a special charm, clearly the result of years of struggle, he had emerged with a very rare type of warmth, which basked everything around him in a soft glow.

Tonight,” he told me, “you said that we all have unique missions, despite appearances. Can you help me discover my special qualities?” I was taken. 

He wasn’t aware of his own level of refinement. This tortured man could give more love and kindness than most people I know, yet he was crying for help.

From time to time, he would address his own feelings of rejection and his desire to confront his parents. He had tracked them down, but was terrified of contacting them.

After a few months of hesitation, I got their number and I finally made the call. “Hello, good afternoon, I am a friend of your son and would like to speak to you about him.”

Deathly silence on the other end of the line.

“What can I do for you?” finally came the brisk and cold response.

“I know your son. He is an extraordinary man and I thought that would make you proud.” Click. The father hung up the phone.

A few days later I tried again, but his secretary did not let the call through, so I left a message that “this matter is very personal and can have profound long-term consequences for good or for bad.”

I tried again the next day, and he took my call. I said: “Please understand. I am not in the business of meddling. I am not being critical or judgmental. 

I simply feel from the depths of my heart that it would be life-transforming for you and your wife to meet your son.”

“We don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to go there, we did what we felt was best for everyone.”

“I am sure you did. Still, today, now, your son has grown to be a tremendous soul. He needs to see you and you need to see him. Please consider that.”

“I’ll get back to you.”

He didn’t. But now I was on the warpath. So I called again. He did apologize for not getting back—and said that his wife would not be able to do it. 

Too uncomfortable. He mumbled something about having “long ago buried this.” But I persisted.

“So then I’ll arrange for you to meet your son without your wife.” “No, not yet.”


After a few months he finally relented, and we scheduled the fateful meeting that the three of them dreaded. They insisted they wanted me present at the meeting. I figured I would be a bit of a buffer.

The big day came. We met at their lavish home in the living room, tea and biscuits on the table, all choreographed to a T, except for the emotions that would be released.

This was one of the most emotional experiences I ever endured. Initially, everybody was cordial, even detached, like strangers meeting about buying a house. 

“What do you do?” “Where have you traveled?” “Are you a Yankees fan?” “How’s the weather?” After trying to stay in the background and let things take their natural course, 

I finally spoke up with the first serious statement of the evening. “Your son told me his story. He must have a lot of anger inside of him, but he hasn’t shown it to me. 

You must have many feelings yourselves. I really don’t belong here, but since I am here, allow me to say that your son is one of the most beautiful people I know. 

I have discovered through him new horizons of human dignity and the capacity of the soul to shine in this harsh world. I think it would be truly life-changing for you to get to know each other.”

Before I stood to leave, our hero turned to his parents and uttered a few words that would melt any heart. With a stutter, 

he slowly said: “Mumma, Puppa”—I could tell that he worked long and hard to get those words out (he never referred to his parents that way when he spoke with me). 

“I, I am not perfect. You, too, you are also not perfect. I have forgiven you. Can you forgive me?”

They all burst into tears. I made my way out, leaving them alone….

Can you forgive me for not being perfect, their handicapped child asked. Can you forgive me for putting into your life a child who is less than perfect?

Can you forgive your child for not being perfect? Can you forgive your loved one for not being perfect? Can you forgive yourself for being imperfect?

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

 

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