The Talmud Yerushalmi specifies the nature of these sins: “HaKadosh Baruch Hu (G-d) anticipates that, in the future, this one [the rebellious son] will use all the property of his father and mother, will sit at the crossroads and attack people, will kill people, and ultimately he will forget his learning, and the Torah said that it is better that he should die with merits, and not die obligated [because of sins].
The Talmud seems to progress from less bad sins to worse sins, up to the point where the rebellious son has no hope. It is understandable that the Talmud outlines in this progression serious sins such as murder, but the question arises as to why is the final sin that he will forget his learning? Of course, this is a bad thing, but how can it compare to the other transgressions in the list? Moreover, the implication is that the forgetting of his learning is the ‘final straw’ that seals the rebellious son’s fate to be killed.
Maran Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l answers with an essential principle. A person can be doing the worst sins, but as long as he is still somehow connected to Torah learning, there is always hope that he will recognize the errors of his ways and repent. However, once he loses that connection, then there is no hope of him coming back.
Accordingly, even when the ben sorer u’moreh is doing terrible sins, if he still learns Torah or at least remembers his Torah learning, then he is not punished, because he is not a lost cause.
Rav Elyashiv uses this principle to explain another difficult text of our Sages. The Talmud says that if a person endures suffering, he should analyze his actions to see if he has sinned; if he finds nothing, then he should assume that he sinned through bittul Torah, not learning Torah at times when he was obligated.
The commentaries ask that bittul Torah in and of itself is a sin, so if a person searched for any sins, included in that should have been the sin of bittul Torah. Accordingly, how can the Talmud then say that he should assume that it was because of bittul Torah?
Rav Elyashiv explains that the Talmud does not mean that he is enduring suffering because of the sin of bittul Torah. Rather, it means that if he analyzed his actions and could not find any sins, he should assume that the reason he could not find the sins was because of bittul Torah, meaning that he did not learn sufficient Torah. Torah learning done in the right way enables a person to discern his true level and to see where he has erred. The fact that the person could not find any sins, must be a result of the fact that he negated learning Torah.
It still needs to be discussed how exactly learning Torah brings a person to teshuva. One approach is that in a metaphysical sense, the power of Torah learning positively affects the essence of a person to the extent that it causes him to do teshuva.
This is the simple understanding of the Yerushalmi that HaShem says that even if His children sin, He does not give up hope if they are still learning Torah, ‘because the light in It (the Torah) will cause they to return to the good.” However, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, said that this Talmud only applies to people on a very high level, but for most people, Torah does not automatically infiltrate into their being without conscious effort.
This demonstrates that for most people Torah learning does not automatically facilitate teshuva. In order for Torah learning to help a person in his active Avodat HaShem, it is necessary to apply what he learns to his life.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, explained that this is why the first Tractate of Talmud that boys learn is often Bava Kama, which deals with the laws of damages as opposed to more seemingly practical Tractates such as Brachot which discusses the laws of prayer. He explained that it is to imbue the children at an early stage of their life with sensitivity to the property of other people. A person who learns the laws of damages, and applies what he learns to his life, will come to recognize when he may have transgressed in these areas. However, one who learns as a purely academic exercise will not benefit from Torah in this way.
Of course, it is true that if a person is learning Torah, he still remains connected to the Torah to the extent that there is hope he will return, hence there is always hope for the rebellious son as long as he remembers his learning. However, to ensure that Torah learning helps us in our daily Avodat HaShem it is essential to take a more active approach to apply what we learn to our lives.