One of the laws presented in Parashat Ki-Teitzei is that of the ben sorer u-moreh, or “wayward son.” Startlingly, the Torah requires parents of a habitually disobedient youngster to bring him to the local court, who would put the youngster to death (21:21). The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (71a) famously comments that this law “never happened and will never happen in the future.” As the Gemara proceeds to note, the conditions that need to be met for this law to apply make a situation of ben sorer u-moreh all but impossible. Specifically, the Gemara mentions the requirement that the two parents look and sound alike, and are the same height – a condition which can hardly be imagined being met. The Gemara states that this law was nevertheless included in the Torah for the purpose of “derosh ve-kabel sekhar” – to offer us the opportunity to study it and thereby earn reward.
Some have suggested a deeper reading of the Gemara’s comment based on the Mishna’s famous remark (Sanhedrin 71b), cited by Rashi (to 21:18), that a ben sorer u-moreh is punished “al sheim sofo” – in anticipation of what he would otherwise become. As Rashi explains, a youngster who routinely commits the offenses that render him a ben sorer u-moreh is all but guaranteed to become a criminal as an adult. The Torah therefore determined that such a boy should be killed before this eventuality unfolds. It has been suggested that this understanding of the institution of ben sorer u-moreh lies at the heart of the Gemara’s assertion that such a situation never occurred and will never occur. Never, the Gemara teaches, will there ever be a sinner who has no hope of changing, who has fallen to such depths of depravity that a future of sin and criminal behavior is assured. The Torah depicts a prototype of a wayward youngster who is certain to continue his downward moral spiral without any possibility of reversing his course, but the Gemara clarifies that this depiction is purely hypothetical. In reality, there will never be an irredeemably bad sinner; nobody will ever be a ben sorer u-moreh, a person who has no hope of improving his conduct.
We might, however, ask, for what purpose did the Torah depict this hypothetical circumstance? If we are guaranteed to always have the ability to change and to raise ourselves from the abyss of sin, then what value is there in portraying the theoretical image of a somebody without this ability?
The answer, perhaps, is that the hypothetical model of the ben sorer u-moreh warns us of the difficulty involved in changing habits and modes of conduct. The fact that it is theoretically possible for somebody to fall into such depths of evil that he has no ability to recover shows us that behavior patterns are extremely difficult to reverse. While it is true that there never was or will be a ben sorer u-moreh, an individual so evil that he lost the power to change, there have been countless people who failed to utilize their power to change because of how hard the process is. The extreme, unrealistic case of the ben sorer u-moreh is perhaps intended to urge us all to develop proper habits and routines, and to avoid falling into habits that will be exceedingly difficult – though never impossible – to change later.