Rabbi Zvi Teichman

This week we read a long list of laws primarily related to civil life and welfare. In what seems as a potpourri of many diverse topics, the commentators toil to explain the divine logic behind the sequencing of these many statutes.

In what seems one of the more glaring contrasts, is the series of laws discussing striking or cursing a parent and the crime of kidnapping.

The Torah records: One who strikes his father or mother shall surely be put to death. One who kidnaps a man and sells him, and he was found to be in his power, shall be put to death. One who curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death. (כא טויז)

The insertion here of the ordinance regarding kidnapping so starkly out of context — and it being planted smack in-between two laws that are so naturally related — screams out for elucidation.

The Sifsei Cohen, the sixteenth century Kabbalist, the Holy Rav Mordechai HaKohen of Tzfas, peels away the superficial reading of these verses to reveal for us a mystical and powerful underlying message.

The Sifsei Cohen ponders, how is it possible that a father who provided with purposeful dedication for his child, and a mother who suffered through pregnancy and childbirth, nursed so lovingly, tenderly bathed and clothed her son, could beget offspring so ungrateful that he physically assaults his parents.

The Torah intimates this question in providing an answer by referring us to the laws of the kidnapper.

Who is the ‘kidnapped child’ the Torah speaks of?

The Sifsei Cohen writes: Parents who conceive a child while wrapped up in their selfish passion, focusing solely on their own personal needs and expectations, forgetting the third partner that is present from the moment of conception throughout the child’s entire life, are not allotted their ‘designated’ natural child. The parents selecting to go it on their own, are virtually ‘kidnapping’ an external soul from the ‘other side’.

This is precisely the scenario the verse is addressing. 

A parent is bewildered, wondering, “How could this child possibly attack me after all I’ve done?” 

The Torah responds וגנב — ‘in your self-centeredness you have kidnapped this soul, this is not the child that was destined for you were you to have partnered and considered ‘My’ role in the equation’. ומכר — you have bartered it for an ‘external soul’. ונמצא בידו — it was ‘found’ in your hand, not assigned — you snatched it. 

In earthly terms, perhaps we can understand this mystical idea in the following rational way.

A child is not merely the realization of a personal dream, a quest for progeny to make parents proud in seeing their own reflection in their child. It is the opportunity to partner with G-d in having the privilege to raise a neshamah — a pure soul and affording it the ability to come close to G-d in its own special way, that is uniquely suited to it.

The moment we forget of our responsibility to the ‘Silent Partner’ is the instant we ‘kidnap’ a child’s neshamah.

A child who senses it is merely here to fulfill its parents’ expectations is ultimately bound to feel resentment. If the child, however, perceives that the love and attention directed towards him or her is through the objective lens of the ‘third partner’, seeking to allow the child to develop and attain what is in its best interest, it would indeed be impossible for this child to ever strike out at the parent.

The next verse in succession, the Sifsei Cohen continues, describes this ‘kidnapped’ child. He is one who resents those who raise him to be a prototype of themselves, ignoring the child’s needs and desires, who eventually feels contempt towards them and curses those that bore him.

The Sifsei Cohen goes on to state that despite this justified resentment, the contemptible cursing is inexcusable and punishable by death. He has no need to lash out to resolve his angst. There is recourse and a healthier path towards the restoration of his identity.

The Talmud teaches us that man can alter his fate through שינוי מקום, changing one’s place, name, and actions. (ראש השנה טז:) 

These correspond to the three partners — ‘G-d’ who is referred to as המקום — for He occupies every space, שם — name, alludes to the ‘father’ who designates the child’s name, and מעשה — action, for through the ‘mother’s’ actions the child develops.

Perhaps the implication here is that a child who lacks a healthy ‘triumvirate’ working in unison, is left with a diminished sense of self, after all the child is just the shadow of his parents’ interests. He is missing the confident ambition, purposeful direction and sense of place and belonging. A healthy functioning home is the מקום — breeding ground, that anchors one’s growth. A mother instills the self-confidence that is critical to development — מעשה. The father helps sets the goals wherein the child will make his mark, his שם — his reputation.  

Man, however can discover his place by acknowledging that he is always in the company of G-d   — המקום. With an awareness that G-d believes in him as no other can and accompanies him wherever, man can reignite a belief in himself, and the inherent qualities bequeathed to him — מעשה. With that renewed motivation he can begin to find his compass and objective in life — שם.

An indentured servant, who after six years of service declares a love for his limited life as a bondsman, must undergo a boring of a hole in his ear to symbolize his failure to internalize the message he heard at Mount Sinai when G-d declared — לא תגנב, You shall not steal. (כא ו)

This alludes to his initially having entered servitude because of having stolen and not being able to repay, thereby forcing the need to be sold to use that money to pay his debt.

Why do we commemorate this weakness first now, six years later, and not when he first sold himself as a consequence of his having stolen?

Additionally, this injunction, לא תגנב recorded in the Decalogue is referring to the more heinous crime of kidnapping, not merely stealing property. Why not refer to the verse — לא תגנובו (יט יא, that more accurately deals with simply stealing property?

An individual who can placate himself by remaining a servant, is one whose self-confidence to forge one’s own path in life was kidnapped. He seeks the easy comfort of blending into the background of another’s home. He indeed has not absorbed the lesson of the kidnapped soul who represents lost ambition and drive, that can be restored with an abiding faith in God.

There was one individual in history who was kidnapped and sold, by brothers who usurped the confidence and leadership his father instilled in him, and took advantage of this motherless child — Yosef HaTzaddik.

At that young and vulnerable age he was stripped of his self-assurance, torn from his elevated position and thrust far from the warmth of his home. 

Yet, rather than descending to bitterness, he found solace with the omnipresent God, even while in a pit filled with snakes and scorpions, traveling in a caravan of foul smelling Arab merchants and cast in the darkness of a dungeon.

That consciousness allowed him to exhibit unparalleled poise no matter what situation he faced, rising with that faith to a position of great purpose. 

Yosef found his מקום — place, even in Egypt. He displayed magnificent מעשה — deed, in the face of the greatest of challenges. He gained a שם — name and reputation, that all were in absolute awe of.

The Midrash states that one of the rationales for the annual command to give the Machtzis HaShekel, a half-shekel, is that it serves as an atonement for the sin of the kidnapping of Yosef. 

(ב פד יח)

Yosef was sold for a total of twenty pieces of silver, equivalent to five shekalim, as there are four pieces of silver per shekel. Being that ten tribes benefited from the proceeds, it turns out each brother received a half-shekel, five divided by ten. 

When the brothers sought to impose their understanding of the true value of Yosef, they hijacked his destiny for greatness. By placing an exact price on his head, they were in essence reducing his priceless worthiness to being a mere material and finite object as a slave.

We offer a half-shekel, for it in its incompleteness it symbolizes that the coin represents just the tip of the iceberg of our inestimable worth.

This dangerous attitude is not only something that parents are susceptible to. A teacher towards a student; an employer with his employees; colleagues who work side by side, are all capable of commandeering those they influence. When we don’t see the other beyond our own expectations of them, we are kidnapping their souls.

We assert by collectively each contributing a half-shekel, that we appreciate our own, as well as other’s limitless greatness. We affirm our awareness that we can only flourish in an environment of common validation of one another’s uniqueness.

In this self-discovery lies our attaining true שמחה — happiness.

This is the key to restoring the Achdus, the unity that we sensed in the times of Mordechai, that brought about a new and thrilling acceptance of Torah.

We are poised for great times ahead. It is evident that Heaven is summoning our attention to gather once again and herald this final redemption we so desperately need.

May we release ourselves and others from captivity and merit an everlasting joy upon our heads.

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