May 30, 2024
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The Power of Believing in Others

The topic of the “eishet yefat toar”—although on one hand reveals a weakness in our nature, on the other hand can indicate our inherent greatness and our enormous potential for success. Our parsha discusses a situation of an optional war. In this circumstance, the Torah understands that the yetzer hara could be too strong for some in these conditions, and thus provided an avenue for the soldier to satisfy his desire for a woman he may see among the enemy captives (see Gemara Kiddushin 21b).

Yet, as Rav Yechezkel Abramsky points out, from the fact that the Torah provided a permit in this case, implies that everything that the Torah forbids, a person is capable of withstanding and observing. Hence, it’s within a person’s abilities to keep the entire Torah! For had there been a situation where certain mitzvot would have been too difficult to observe, then the Torah would have also provided an avenue to permit those as well. This, then, shows that a person is able to keep all of Torah (seen in Hadrachat Haparsha, Ki Teitzei).

Torah is vast, but we could see from here our potential, and the tremendous abilities we have been given to observe it.

Our parsha also discusses the topic of the “ben sorer umoreh”—a young boy who deserves the death penalty of stoning. Although it may seem like the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, nevertheless, as the Gemara explains, the Torah foresaw that this boy “will eventually deplete all his mothers and fathers possessions; he will begin robbing people; he will begin murdering people,” etc. (Gemara Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 8:7). It seems that this boy has become so morally degenerate that the Torah sees no hope for him, but only a life that—if let to live—will undoubtedly breed worse and worse actions to eventually become a murderer.

But what did this boy actually do wrong that the Torah foresees such an inevitably hopeless and horrible future for him?

The Ramban lists two misdeeds of the ben sorer umoreh: 1) He disrespects his father and mother and rebels against them. 2) Since he is a glutton and drunkard, he violates the commandment of “You shall be holy” [According to the Ramban (Vayikra, 19:2) the basic idea of this mitzvah seems to be that one should separate oneself from excess of even permissible acts]; and it is also stated, “Him shall you serve and to Him shall you cleave,” which means that we are commanded to know Hashem in all our ways, and one who is a drunkard and a glutton does not know the way of Hashem.

The second misdeed of violating “You shall be holy” and “Him shall you serve and to Him shall you cleave” can be somewhat puzzling. As Rav Henach Leibowitz (Chiddushei Halev, Ki Teitzei) wonders, doesn’t a large portion of Am Yisrael also stumble in these mitzvot!?

Whatever the explanation may be, we perhaps see from the question that it takes a certain (higher than typical) level of spiritual maturity to observe these mitzvot. It is, therefore, perhaps implicit from the Ramban that even a young boy of the age of the ben sorer has the potential to reach such a level of spiritual advancement. Which could further show the outstanding potential of every Jew, even the younger, and seemingly “less spiritually developed,” folks.

With this as a background, we may gain a better framework of a powerful insight presented by Rav Elya Svei: The Mishna (Sanhedrin 8:4) says that if the boy’s father wants (to have him brought to court to be declared as a ben sorer umoreh) but his mother did not, or vice versa, the boy does not become a ben sorer umoreh until both parents are willing.

The question is, why if one parent refuses to have him brought to court does that pardon his potential sentence? If he indeed qualifies as a bonafide ben sorer umoreh, why should he be let off the hook just because one parent refuses to have him brought to court?

Rav Elya Svei explains that it appears from here, that when the Torah declares that this boy is deserving of death since it will inevitably lead to terrible crimes like murder, that holds true only when there isn’t even a parent of his who believes in this boy [that he can make a turnaround for the better], who sees any hope for him. For if there was, this can save him from going down this otherwise predictable path! Hence, if one of the parents don’t want him to go to court to be declared a ben sorer umoreh, this could essentially mean that that parent still believes in this boy—that despite the path he has taken, he can still change for the better. For the hope and belief itself can infuse this boy with the strength and fortitude to resist this downward path (Ruach Eliyahu, Ki Teitzei, maamer 130).

We could amplify this idea by further seeing just how wicked the ben sorer umoreh would theoretically become: The question is raised that even if it’s true that this boy will eventually become a murderer, however, a murderer’s punishment is beheading—which is less severe than stoning! So why does he deserve the more severe punishment of stoning? Rav Chaim Kanievsky brings an explanation that there’s two kinds of murderers: One type are those who want to get something out of it—for example he is so hungry and kills the owner of the food in order to take it. But the other type is one who kills for absolutely no reason at all—even if he has nothing to gain from it. Hence, since the Torah foresaw that the ben sorer umoreh will become the second type of murderer [who is more utterly cruel and callous to human life], this warrants a more severe punishment (Ta’ama d’kra, Ki Teitzei).

Understanding and believing in the tremendous potential of another Jew despite how far that Jew may be and despite him being a character of this sort who is on the way to becoming such a cruel murderer—can cause such a powerful influence on the person, inspiring them to want to change, and enabling them to activate their hidden strengths.

Noach lived in a generation steeped in immorality and corruption. They were on the verge of being blotted out from the world. The Sforno comments that although Noach rebuked them for their corrupted actions, he failed to teach them “to know Hashem and to go in His ways” (Seforno, Bereishit 6:8). Ultimately, his generation was wiped out.

Rav Henach Leibowitz (Chiddushei Halev, Bereishit) points out that the implication from the Seforno is that had Noach taught them to know Hashem and to go in His ways, his generation could’ve changed and done teshuva [and ultimately could have been saved]. Apparently then, even such wicked people of this sort could have been inspired by being taught about Hashem and of going in His ways!

So why, in fact, didn’t Noach teach them this?

We can suggest that even though Noach to some degree believed in the people—that his generation could change (otherwise he seemingly wouldn’t have even bothered to rebuke them), however, perhaps he didn’t fully believe in the inner greatness of a person—that even someone caught up in terrible actions can still be receptive to hearing about Hashem, and having it resonate and stir up his conscience. Thus, it would emerge that if Noach truly and fully believed in the inherent potential and greatness that resides—albeit sometimes very hidden—within every person, then he could have caused an entire (heavily corrupted) generation to change and do teshuva! He could have saved an entire generation of people.

This can show the power of believing in the greatness, abilities, and potential of another person—no matter where they may be holding in life.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan, and of Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

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