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The Systems of the Jewish Year

I Saw Him and Sat on His Grave

By Rabbi Sender Haber

In Parshas Ki Seitzei the Torah tells us the difficult story of the ‘Ben Sorer Umoreh’, the wayward son. This rare boy has misbehaved to the point that we have given up hope on him. We assume that he will grow up to be a bandit and a murderer. The Torah tells us to put him to death. He should die as an innocent soul and not as a guilty criminal.

Death seems to be a harsh punishment for this young man. In fact R’ Shimon (in Maseches Sanhedrin) opines that it is inconceivable that the Beis Din would actually stone somebody who has not yet committed a crime. We cannot kill him for stealing some wine and some meat from his parents. R’ Shimon concludes that, indeed, the case of the Ben Sorer Umoreh never actually took place. The Torah wrote it so that we could receive reward for Torah study by learning it.
Reb Yonasan argues and insists that the case of Ben Sorer Umoreh did take place. “I saw him”, he says, “and sat on his grave”.

The Talmud has a similar discussion about the Ir Hanidachas - the city that becomes completely idolatrous. The Torah commands us to destroy this city. This time R’ Eliezer insists that the Torah records this law only for the sake of Torah study. It never actually happened. Reb Yonasan argues once again: I saw it and sat on its ruins.

Reb Yonasan’s position is intriguing. Not only does he insist that these cases took place, he seems to have gone out of his way to visit the gravesites of these people. Reb Akiva Eiger understands the statement “I sat on his grave” literally. Reb Yonasan literally sat on the graves of these people. Why would Reb Yonasan visit their graves and then (seemingly) disgrace them?

Reb Yonasan’s position brings to mind a different Gemara in Masechtas Brachos (18a). The gemara tells of the time that Rav Chiya and Rav Yonasan were walking together in a graveyard. Rav Yonasan’s Tzitzis were dragging on the ground. Our minhag is to hide our tzitzis when entering a graveyard so as not to mock the deceased who can no longer do mitzvos. Reb Chiya said to Reb Yonasan “lift your tzitzis. You do not want those who have passed away to have complaints against you. You will one day be in the same position that they are in”. Rav Yonasan disagreed, “Since when are the deceased so aware of their surroundings”. He quoted a verse in Koheles “The dead do not know anything”. Reb Chiya argued sharply with Reb Yonasan but Reb Yonasan seems to be consistent with his statements regarding the Ben Sorer Umoreh.

Reb Yonasan’s appears to have been in the habit of deliberately demonstrating that the deceased cannot be offended.

In order to understand Reb Yonasan’ viewpoint we need to understand how the Ben Sorer Umoreh got to where he was in the first place. The Ben Sorer Umoreh is the only case in the Torah of someone who is punished based on his future actions. Even Yishmael the father of the Arabic nations had his life saved. Though his children would include many enemies of the Jewish people and he himself was not always a friend of the Jewish people, he was judged ???? ??? ?? - as he was at that point in time.

Yishmael was given a chance to change but the Ben Sorer Umoreh was not. I once heard from Reb Yitzchak Ezrachi that there was a very important distinction between Yishmael and the Ben Sore Umoreh. Yishmael had a chance to change and eventually he did do Teshuva. He had the opportunity to listen to and learn from Avraham and Hagar and those around him about the right way to live his life. His name was Yishamael, the one who hears Hashem.

Not so the Ben Sorer Umoreh. The Torah stresses that he refused to listen to those around him. He had no ears. The Gemara (according to Reb Schwab) explains that we are talking about someone who had the best of parents and the best of opportunities available to him, but he had no ears. He refused to listen. A person who is so wrapped up in himself that he refuses to listen to those around him is hopeless. He has no vehicle for change.

Reb Yonansan recognized that it was possible for a Ben Sorer Umoreh to exist. It could happen. But he also recognized something else. There was no hope for this rare child, but he was not completely bad either.

Reb Yonasan quotes Shlomo Hamelech who writes in Koheles that when a person passes away all of his lusts and obsessions pass away with him. If he was obsessed with himself when he was alive, he will cease to do so after he has passed. The ben Sorer Umoreh is a person who is really good at heart but who is stifled by handicaps that are beyond his control. He cannot change because he cannot listen. Reb Yonasan reminds us that however great his faults there is a good person hidden inside. His urges are not him, his lusts are not him and his problems are not him.

They say that we are what we drive. There is some truth to this, but in the final analysis what we drive is not us. Our cars may tell people about us and they may affect who we are, but our cars are not us. The same is true of our bad habits. The way we act and the way we speak may dictate how we are perceived, but our actions are not us; they are things that we do.

Even the ben sorer umoreh is not all bad. After he passes away he is no longer haughty, he no longer seeks glory and he no longer lusts. Reb Yonasan said “I saw him, he can exist; but he was just handicapped by forces beyond his control”. Now that he is no longer part of the physical world, his good points can shine. Where he is now he can listen and he does hear. He is no longer the person he was before. Reb Yonasan would go out of his way to demonstrate that the deceased were no longer tied up in their egos. He would sit on their graves.

Rav Yonasan later changed his mind about the feelings of people who are no longer with us. We know that when Moshe Rabeinu passed away Hashem told him to bring a message to Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov. Moshe was to tell them that Hashem had fulfilled his promised and that the Jews were entering Eretz Yisroel. They needed to hear about this and they needed to hear about it from Moshe. Our forefathers will never stop thinking about us and we will continue to yearn for mitzvos after we pass away.
Reb Yonasan’s message, however, remains true: we can be separated from our bad habits. Our bad habits are not us.

As we approach Rosh Hashana this is an important lesson to remember - our problems are not us. We can be and need to be ourselves independent of any faults that we may have.

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