The special month of Elul is observed every year as a time for introspection and repentance, a period when we put in extra effort to correct our bad habits and improve ourselves, in preparation for the judgment that will take place upon the conclusion of this month, on Rosh Hashanah.
We are all well aware of our faults, our struggles, our character flaws, the areas in which we fall short of what we should be expecting of ourselves. As Elul begins, most of us already have a list in our minds of the things that we do which we shouldn’t, and the things that we don’t do which we should.
I would like to propose, however, that this is not the correct mindset for Elul, that this month actually requires a far more ambitious undertaking, one which, if done properly, could propel us to much greater heights and make this season an especially productive one.
The “Wayward” Teacher???
Every year, toward the beginning of Elul, we read Parashat Ki-Tetzeh, which includes the unusual law of the ben sorer umoreh – a term commonly translated as “wayward son.” Under very specific circumstances, a 12-year-old boy who commits certain offenses, and ignores his parent’s admonitions, would be put to death. The Talmud teaches that the Torah imposes so many conditions which must be met for this law to take effect, that, as a practical matter, such a situation could never happen. It is simply impossible for a child to meet all the conditions required to be declared a ben sorer umoreh and thus worthy of execution. The Torah nevertheless introduced this law, the Gemara explains, for the purpose of “derosh vekabel sechar” – literally, “study and receive reward.” Meaning, this subject is worthy of study and analysis not because such a situation will arise, but rather because it offers us important and rewarding knowledge and insight.
There is a great deal to discuss about this intriguing law, but for now, we will simply examine the title that the Torah gives to this young man: ben sorer umoreh. The word “sorer” is derived from the root s.u.r., which means “turn away,” and it thus refers to the child’s having deviated from the proper course of conduct. This yields the common translation of “ben sorer umoreh” as “wayward” son. However, this translation fails to take into account the additional word – “umoreh.” What does the Torah mean when it describes this child as not only “wayward” (sorer), but also “moreh”?
One explanation of this word is that it stems from the term meri – “rebellion.” The ben sorer umoreh, then, is “wayward” and also “rebellious.”
We might, however, question this interpretation. If “moreh” denotes rebelliousness, then, seemingly, the sequence should be reversed; the child should be referred to as a “ben moreh vesorer.” After all, a youngster first becomes rebellious, and this leads him to stray. The rebelliousness, we would assume, is what results in the youngster’s becoming “wayward,” and thus the word “moreh” should have preceded the word “sorer.”
We thus prefer a second understanding of the word “moreh,” one which is familiar to everyone who ever studied in a Jewish school, or who ever had a child who studied in a Jewish school. A “moreh,” of course, is a teacher (and a “morah” is a female teacher). The phrase “ben sorer umoreh,” then, means “a child who is a wayward teacher.”
Wayward teacher?! This 12-year-old boy is a teacher? What does this mean?
Wrongful Conduct vs. Wrongful Ideology
I believe the Torah here is teaching us something exceedingly profound.
We are all “sorer” at certain points in our lives. Youths, especially, often go through “wayward” periods, times when they feel compelled to deviate from the course charted for them, to try different behaviors and lifestyles as part of the process of forging their identity and finding their way in this very large and very confusing world. The Torah does not require or even advise an exceptionally harsh response to a “wayward” youth. If a child – or even an adult, for that matter – is only “sorer,” having strayed from the correct path, there is no need for drastic measures. We are all imperfect human beings, and we are going to stray on occasion. The Torah firmly believes in people’s capacity to find our way back, and this should be our attitude when somebody strays – trusting that the individual can, with love, encouragement and guidance, find his or her way back to the proper path.
The problem arises when the youngster is not only “sorer,” but also “moreh” – when he strongly and passionately believes in his chosen lifestyle, when it becomes not just a lifestyle he chose, but an ideology that he has convinced himself is right, and which he “teaches” and passionately advocates for. This, perhaps, is the key to understanding the law of the ben sorer umoreh.
The Gemara explains that the ben sorer umoreh is executed “al shem sofo” – because of what would otherwise inevitably unfold. The Torah has determined that a youngster who has placed himself on this trajectory would eventually become a dangerous murderer, a menace to society. Therefore, the Torah commands putting this youngster to death, to prevent him from growing to become a serial killer.
The Gemara’s comments, at first glance, appear to undermine one of the most fundamental Torah precepts – that we are all capable of change. What rabbi hasn’t fervently spoken during Elul and the High Holidays about the Torah’s belief in a sinner’s capacity to change, the spark of holiness within every person, regardless of what he has done, that is waiting to be ignited? Since when does Judaism view somebody as a “lost cause,” a person who will inevitably fall lower and lower, who has no hope of repentance and recovery?
The answer lies in the word “moreh.” The Torah here is teaching us that if somebody not only acts wrongly, but has turned his wrongdoing into an ideology, and has become a “teacher,” prepared to defend and even encourage such misconduct, then he will not change. Of course, the Torah believes in the spark of holiness within each person which is never extinguished, which can always be ignited, and which always ensures a sinner’s ability to change course. But this spark will never be ignited if the sinner resists. A person who feels certain and confident about himself cannot change, because he will not allow himself to change. The problem with the ben sorer umoreh, then, is not that he’s sorer, that he commits terrible crimes, but that he is also moreh, an adherent of a sinful ideology that sees his crimes as virtuous.
A Time for Humble Reassessment
Returning to Elul, I believe we miss the mark if we focus during this month only on the faults and flaws which we are already aware of, the areas of life in which we know we need to improve, and in which we have been trying to improve. Please don’t get me wrong – this is certainly part of the process, and an important part of the process: strengthening our resolve and determination to break our bad habits and making the changes we know we need to change. But this is only part of the Elul experience.
The other part is far more difficult, but no less vital. We need to challenge our assumptions about ourselves and our behavior. We need to humbly reassess not only our behavior, but our ideas about what behavior is acceptable and which isn’t acceptable. We need to question our basic premises about what is right and what isn’t. If we don’t challenge ourselves this way, and we continue to be “teachers,” stubbornly adhering to our presumptions, then we cannot change.
This is a very uncomfortable exercise, which is probably why many people neglect it. This exercise involves raising the possibility that things we’ve always assumed to be correct are actually wrong, and that things we’ve always assumed to be wrong are actually correct. It means thinking about the times when a peer suggested that we acted improperly, and we defended ourselves – and considering if maybe the criticism was actually correct. It means thinking about the time when we heard a rabbi speak about a certain religious obligation, and we defended our laxity in regard to that requirement – and considering if perhaps our defense was misguided. It means thinking about the fight we had with a family member, neighbor, friend or business associate, vehemently insisting that we were right – and considering if perhaps we weren’t.
To put it succinctly, addressing the “sorer” elements of our character is relatively easy, but addressing the “moreh” elements is far more challenging. Once we are already aware of a flaw, we can overcome it with patience, persistence, and belief in the sacred spark and divine spirit within us. The greater challenge is to change our perspective on our behavior, to humbly acknowledge that we saw things incorrectly, that we’ve foolishly defended our “wayward” conduct, that we’ve succeeded in deceiving ourselves into thinking we were right when we were actually wrong. This is the true Elul challenge.
Let us all try to approach Elul this year with genuine humility, with an open mind, with a willingness to honestly reassess our behavior, and to acknowledge that we sometimes get it wrong. And the way we open our mind is to recognize that, as frail human beings, there is no shame in being “sorer,” in making mistakes, in getting things wrong. This is part of life. Everybody makes mistakes, because we are all human. Once we accept our human frailty, we will feel less discomfort in reevaluating, reconsidering, rethinking and reexamining our behavior. We will then be able to meet the Elul challenge, so we can begin the new year ready to open a new page and achieve all that we are capable of achieving.