The sidra gives us the law of the ben sorer umoreh, the stubborn and rebellious (or “wayward and defiant”) son. It is frightening to read that a son who is a total rebel and pays no heed to his parents or society is to be put to death (Deut. 21:18-21).
The sages however found no record of this law ever being carried out (though Josephus states that Herod used it as a pretext for killing his sons), and they said it was in the Torah purely for academic purposes.
Why then is the law in the Torah?
The Talmud says, d’rosh v’kabbel sachar, “Expound it and receive a reward” (Sanh. 71a).
One possibility is that though youthful rebels are not going to be executed, it is good that they should be warned not to go too far in their unruly wildness.
Does this mean that it is the younger generation whom the Talmud has in mind when it says, “Expound it and receive a reward?”
That is a possibility, but how much notice are wayward and defiant youths likely to take of what the rabbis say?
It may therefore be more practical to apply the rabbinic dictum more widely and say it is addressed to the adults.
To parents, certainly, for whom it may be saying, “Don’t give up on your children”. Probably to everyone else too: as a warning not to summarily overturn or abandon traditions just because they are old and entrenched.