He was a glutton for meat and drank alcohol to excess. He disobeyed his parents at every turn, mocking their pleas and their attempts at discipline. Instead he sought to instruct his parents. He demanded that they pay for his excessive habits, and when they wouldn't, he simply stole what he needed.

Presenting themselves before the Bet Din, they declared that their son was a glutton and a drunkard who refused to obey his parents. The Torah instructs the Bet Din to sentence the boy to death.1

Though this law is recorded in the Torah, such an incident has, according to one opinion expressed in the Talmud, never occurred in all of Jewish history. It is pure hypothesisThough this law is recorded in the Torah, such an incident has, according to one opinion expressed in the Talmud, never occurred in all of Jewish history. It is pure hypothesis. It was written in the Torah—explains the Talmud—only so that so that we might "study it and receive reward."2

Yet we know that the Torah's every word has practical relevance to us and must be instructive in our daily worship of G‑d. This incident, too, despite its purely hypothetical nature, must also contain a lesson for us. Otherwise it would not have been included in the Torah.

A Wayward People

According to the mystics, this passage refers collectively to us, the Jewish people.3

From the moment of birth we are constantly reminded that we share a special relationship with G‑d. We are told that our nation was singled out for spiritual greatness, that each of us is destined for a life of sanctity, and that we are endowed with a sublime spark of the divine, with a sacred soul that is breathed into us by G‑d.

We know that by virtue of our soul we are plugged into millennia of Jewish history. We realize that we share a kinship with the likes of Moses and Abraham. We understand that our destiny is intertwined with those of the spiritual giants who preceded us.

We recognize that their sacrifices and achievements have paved our way, and that they watch us with interest to see if we will follow in their footsteps and perpetuate their legacy. We know that if we do, our fleeting lives will leave an indelible mark upon eternity.

We know it, yet we often ignore it. We opt for a life of pleasure and ease rather than commitment and sacrifice. We choose comfort over piety, earth over heaven, body over soul.

We place our needs above those of our ancestors, our interests before G‑d's. For the price of temporal pleasure, we throw away eternal bliss and eschew our encounter with destiny. Just like the wayward child who weighs himself down with his gluttonous ways and allows his body to dominate his soul, so, too, do we invest in corporeal pleasures and thus allow our souls to be dominated by the desires of our bodies.4

He offers instruction, and in return we offer advice Just like the wayward child, we refuse to be guided by our Father in heaven. He offers instruction, and in return we offer advice. Instead of learning the true meaning of life from the Master of all meaning, we offer suggestions to G‑d on how He might best conduct His affairs. We truly do believe that we know better.

The Internal Struggle

We know where we belong, yet we lack the strength to go there. We know what we desire, yet we lack the courage to reach for it. If the truth is told, we are conflicted. On the one hand, our baser elements drive us to instant gratification and hollow pursuits that strip life of all meaning. On the other hand, our divine spark yearns for something more profound, reaches for something greater, aspires to a more meaningful life.

When we study the story of the wayward child, the supposed abstraction that has never come to life, we realize that we have, in fact, become that proverbial son.

How do we remove ourselves from this endless quagmire? We follow the steps outlined in the Torah for the wayward child.

The Divine Solution

The Talmud refers to man's actions as his offspring We stand before G‑d and testify that our children refuse to obey us. Who are these children? The Talmud refers to man's actions as his offspring. Children are the offspring of their parents and our actions are the offspring of our hearts and minds. We attempt to correct our behavior, but our passions and cravings betray us. They don't obey our instruction and don't hearken to our voices.

G‑d then sentences our offspring, our errant actions, to proverbial death by instructing us to put an end to such behavior. The reader will note that He does not order our passions to cease, only our actions. This is because the passions themselves are not forbidden, only our succumbing to them is.

The experience of life as a war between two impulses is normal. It is the way G‑d intended it. However, to gain the upper hand in this struggle requires a superhuman effort, an act made possible only by the grace of G‑d.

This may be the reason the Torah tells us of the wayward child. The Torah teaches that to overcome the allure of temporal pleasures we must seek a blessing from the Divine, an infusion of spiritual strength. We must appear before G‑d and acknowledge that we cannot do it alone, that our actions have run amuck.

G‑d does not demand that which we cannot deliver G‑d does not demand that which we cannot deliver, so when He demands that we improve our behavior and overcome our weaknesses and cravings, He also empowers us to do so. The order itself is empowering. The demand itself is a blessing, a blessing that has the power to extract us from an otherwise hopeless and endless quagmire.

A Powerful Reward

This may explain the rabbinic dictum that the purely hypothetical Torah portion about the wayward child was written only so that we might "study it and receive reward." This Torah portion orders us to improve, indeed empowers us to improve. When we study this portion, we are rewarded with this divine power, which is indeed a worthwhile reward.5