For the past several weeks, I have published letters that focus on the problems of children and teenagers who, despite the fact that they are yeshiva students and come from good Torah homes, are nevertheless deprived. Our last letter-writer described the sad scene of yeshiva teenagers drinking, partying and behaving in a manner that is totally antithetic to our Torah way of life. Our letter writer described how these activities take place without the parents even suspecting what is happening. Her poignant closing words were: “Where is all this going? What can be done?”
My Dear Friend:
First allow me to express hakoras hatov (appreciation) to you for your concern, your ahavas Yisroel (love of fellow Jews), and the courage which prompted you to write and bring this painful situation to the attention of parents and educators. You are right! We have to do something. We have to stop this plague before more of our youth are affected.
While there are no easy solutions, I believe that it is critical that we try to understand from whence this breakdown of values stems, for unless we tackle the problem at its root, the problem will crop up again and again.
It is related that Reb Schmelke of Nikolsburg once met a Jew who was able to communicate with Elijah the prophet. Understandably, Reb Schmelke became very excited. “If this be so,” he told the man, “ask Elijah why Messiah hasn’t yet come?”
“I will certainly do so,” the man responded, “and what better time to do so than when he comes to visit on Seder night?”
After Pesach, Reb Schmelke met this Jew again and asked him if he had spoken to Elijah.
“Most definitely,” the Jew responded.
“Well, what did he say?”
“He said the answer is to be found in the Hagadah – in the “Ma nishtana,” where it is written “Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night, we all recline. This means that on other nights during our other exile, we had those among us who were alert, who awakened us to our calling, who felt the pain, the suffering of Am Yisrael, who moved heaven and earth to bring about our redemption. But in our present exile, we are all reclined… we have become much too complacent and self satisfied.
I believe that this story has much to say to our generation and the troubles we are encountering with our teenagers. Yes, they go to yeshiva; yes, they study Torah, yes, they come from observant homes; yes, they are shomrei mitzvot, but they are complacent and smug about it all. There is no vision; there is no enthusiasm; there is no passion; there is no fire in their hearts. Youth must be charged with a mission, with a sense of purpose. Torah cannot be just a subject. “Ki hem chayenu” – It must become our very life, the purpose of our existence.
But all that is missing in these teenagers. They do not feel the pride, the glory, the majesty of belonging to Mamlechet Kohanim – the Priestly Kingdom, Goy Kadosh – the Holy Nation. They don’t feel motivated or inspired to sacrifice. They don’t have a fire burning in their hearts. In order to inject excitement into their mindless, purposeless lives, they seek fun and thrills in the vacuous materialism of our society. These young people may do well in their studies, but that doesn’t prevent them from embarking upon their suicidal course. More than intellectual knowledge, they require the wisdom of the heart. Knowledge in and of itself is no solution to life’s problems. For example, people may know that smoking is hazardous to their health, yet they go on smoking. And this dichotomy holds true in every area.
Who hasn’t encountered individuals who are brilliant and at the same time, “messed up”. Intellectually they may understand that what they are doing is disastrous, but emotionally, they are unable to cope. Our Torah alerts us to this danger. Thus, it is written, “You are to know this day and take it into your heart” – meaning, it is not sufficient to know, but we must also absorb that knowledge into our hearts. It is in this area that our young people are so sadly lacking. The spark, the passion is not there – Torah does not illuminate their faces or light up their eyes. They may have acquired knowledge, but alas, that knowledge was never taken into their hearts.
We need motivation classes for these teenagers. They have to be taught to feel and cry for the pain of their people. They have to be taught to understand that they are the heirs of six million holy martyrs; that they are a link in the eternal chain of Jewish history and they have a responsibility to insure that the nation continues to live. They have to feel in their hearts that they have a mission and that they have to add their own building blocks to the redemption of our nation – the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash.
These teenagers are the poor little rich children of America, who grew up with everything – and yet lack everything. They are yeshiva students… they come from good homes, and ideally, they should lack for nothing. But with all their education, their hearts remain untouched. Youth have to be inspired. Youth have to be consumed with idealism and imbued with values and dreams. The bitter irony is that we have all these magnificent gifts in our treasury, but we have failed to transmit them.
In the days of the Beit HaMikdash on Yom Kippur night, the Kohen Gadol would hold an all-night prayer vigil for the people. To insure that he would not fall asleep, the pirchei kehuna, the young Kohanim, would snap their fingers to keep him alert and awake. If charged with a sense of purpose, our young people can awaken our generation. They can keep us alert. They can become the visionaries who will inspire us. But alas, these teenagers have no dreams – they are all asleep.
If education is to be effective, it must be infectious. It must be transmitted from the heart of the teacher to the heart of the student, from the hearts of the father and mother to the heart of the child: “Words that emanate from the heart enter another heart.” A chochem, a wise person, is never presented simply as wise. Either he is a talmid chochom, a student of wisdom, or he is a chacham lev – someone who possesses wisdom of the heart. Our sages teach that “G-d does not grant wisdom, except to those who already possess wisdom..” – meaning that our hearts have to yearn for the knowledge of G-d, but alas, that yearning is absent in these youth.
Having said all this, I would also like to make some pragmatic recommendations. 1) Parents have to realize that these teenagers are not adults. They are children who have to be monitored and guided. Parents have to know where their sons and daughters are at all times. Before granting permission to accept invitations for Shabbos, they must investigate whether there will be adult supervision. The best young people can be led astray when confronted by peer pressure. Young people have to see that their parents and educators are living examples of the teachings they impart. There is so much pain in the world, so much suffering that affects us on a personal and national level. One need only listen to the news that comes forth from Eretz Yisrael.
Young people have to see that the adults in their lives feel this pain. They have to learn how to shed tears, not for their petty concerns… for “give me this,” or “give me that,” but for the greater, collective pain of our people. We can no longer remain complacent. It’s time to wake up!