Due to my involvement with at-risk teens, I am often contacted by parents seeking advice in guiding their children through turbulent phases in their lives. Some of the questions posed are rather straightforward in nature, while others require the wisdom of Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) to properly address. Fortunately, several of our leading gedolim (sages) graciously permit me to seek their guidance whenever I feel that particular questions are ‘above my pay grade,’ or when I simply wish to benefit from their Torah wisdom.
One such incident occurred several years ago when the father of a seventeen-year-old bachur contacted me and asked me how to react to a conversation that his son had with him the previous day. It seems that the young man, who was a very high achiever in yeshiva, informed his father that he was undergoing a crisis of faith and at that point in his life had significant questions regarding the fundamentals of Yiddishkeit that his rebbeim had taught him. The bachur was still externally observant but he felt that he was simply going through the motions. Moreover, he did not think that he would be able to continue his life as a ben Torah much longer without a resolution of his ‘faith-based’ questions.
My initial response was to compliment him on being an excellent parent, as his son was clearly comfortable discussing this loaded subject with him – something not all teenage boys would do. I then informed him that although I had some thoughts on how he ought to respond, I felt that I ought to seek daas Torah myself.
I placed a call to one of our leading gedolim, explained the dilemma faced by the boy’s father and asked him for guidance in developing an appropriate response. The Rosh Yeshiva waited only a short moment before answering with the timeless words of Dovid Hamelech (King David). “Yemei sh’noseinu bahem shivim shana – the days of our lives are [merely] seventy years (Tehilim 90). He explained that Dovid Hamelech was expressing the notion that our life’s mission is to spend our finite time in this world (‘seventy years’) to do our very best to understand all of Hashem’s Torah and live our lives according to its principles.
On a pragmatic level, the Rosh Yeshiva suggested that the bachur consult with a kiruv professional who would be more familiar with issues of hashkafah than would be most rebbeim in mainstream yeshivos. Equally as important, he said, was that the father should inform his son that he ought not feel disenfranchised from Hashem’s Torah and its eternal lessons just because he does not fully understand it all at the young age of seventeen – for growing close to Hashem and comprehending His Torah is a lifelong mission.
Simply put, the Rosh Yeshiva wanted the bachur to reframe his thinking regarding his emunah status from ‘maybe’ or ‘no’ to ‘not yet.’ Why? Because a ‘no’ mindset results in frustration and a sense of despair that usually results in a downward spiral. A ‘not yet’ attitude, on the other hand, conveys the duality of the realization that one is far from the goal of perfection – while at the same time sending a profound message of perpetual growth while striving to reach a lofty objective.
Many solutions to the at-risk teen phenomenon are costly, complicated, and difficult to implement. But an enhanced level of tolerance costs nothing and can make such a meaningful difference to a child or teen who is in the ‘not yet’ phase. A caustic comment or a judgmental look from one of ‘us’ can telegraph an unintended message to a vulnerable child that he or she is not welcome in our community; while a kind and encouraging word can convey love, acceptance, respect – and faith in his/her future.
A distinguished Rabbi approached me a few months ago and asked me to share a personal experience of his with my readers. Nearly thirty years ago, a young man who came from a very distinguished Orthodox family and was no longer observant approached him in shul on Yom Kippur. This individual informed the rabbi that he felt drawn to attend Yom Kippur davening despite his non-religious status, but that he was troubled by a nagging question. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he remembered hearing from his rebbeim that if one repents out of sincere love for Hashem, all his previous sins are transformed to merits.
“Come on rabbi,” he asked. “Do you really believe that? How is it possible for Hashem to consider everything that I have done in the past few years as mitzvos? Do you have any idea how many terrible things I did? How can God ever accept me back? I might believe that Hashem could wipe my slate clean. But how could what I have done ever be considered mitzvos?”
The rabbi was quiet for a long moment, not really knowing what or how to respond. He then softly informed the young man that one day in the future he may wish to take all the mistakes and experiences of his youthful rebellion and utilize them to assist others who find themselves in similar predicaments. “When that happens,” said the rabbi, “it will all become zechusim (merits) – for you, and for the children whose lives you will save.”
The rabbi informed me that this young man devoted his life to helping wayward teens and is currently heading a program in Eretz Yisroel that has, over the past two decades, assisted hundreds of at-risk teens regain their footing and become proud, productive members of our Torah community.
© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
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