Last week, there was an article in the New York Times, entitled, “Can Teenage Defiance Be Manipulated For Good?” This article cited studies that demonstrated that teenagers aren’t only defiant, but they are also more sensitive than others to notions of social justice and autonomy. In fact, some of the research showed that teenagers, even more than adults, may have a distinct capacity to effect positive change in their larger communities. Whereas adults tend to be realists, teenagers cannot help but dream. Confronted with a dismal situation, a rational analysis leaves adults resigned to the fact that any action on their part is likely to lead to no change, and much frustration. Teenagers, in their exuberance, are not bound by this same burden of reason. Once they see a mission that piques their interest, teens are prone to pay less attention to the negativity associated with that mission, and focus in on the small but exciting potential therein. Indeed, researchers have found that there are two adolescent imperatives that are commonly motivating: to resist authority and to contribute to community. The question, then, is how do we push our teenagers to focus on the second imperative as opposed to the first one?
Rashi has an interesting comment regarding the juxtaposition of the law of the “eishet yfat to’ar,” the captive woman and the “ben sorer u’moreh,” the wayward son. Rashi states that a man who takes a female captive “sofo l’holid ben sorer u’moreh,” will end up fathering a wayward son. The law of a wayward son is that if a thirteen year old craves and steals a certain amount of meat and wine, his parents can bring him to court where if he is found guilty, he can be put to death. This is a difficult concept to even imagine, and in fact it is debated in the Talmud whether this institution was actually ever implemented. That being said, the message of Rashi is very relevant. The result of ben sorer u’moreh is not a Divine punishment per se of someone who takes a female captive. Rather, the problem of a ben sorer u’moreh is a natural consequence of the father taking a female captive.
A ben sorer u’moreh takes what he wants, whenever he wants it. He eats what he wants and he steals what he wants. He has no impulse control, and does not value sublimating his urges in order to do what is ethical and good. As Rashi explains, this deficit in the ben sorer u’moreh’s character is a learned behavior. These are the traits that a child learns when he is raised by a father who also exerts a similar absence of impulse control. The existence of an eishet yfat to’ar is evidence of a man who was unwilling or unable to sublimate his own misdirected drives. A man who would take a female captive in battle simply because he couldn’t control himself lays the foundation for a similarly wayward son.
Seen in this light, the message of Rashi is uplifting. Because if the actions of a parent can affect a child in this negative way, then the opposite is also true. Our impact as parents can be so great. It is our life’s work to harness this potential for good, so that we may influence our children and grandchildren positively through our own behavior. Our teenagers have a natural tendency to both resist authority and to contribute to community. When these instincts conflict, which will they choose? Most likely, they will look to us, their parents and grandparents, as guides.
We live in a time when it is not heresy, but religious apathy that poses the greatest challenge to orthodox Judaism. We can never predict the future, but we do know that our actions are powerful. While so much of child rearing is dependent on factors that are beyond our control, the natural learning that takes place between parent and child is our greatest weapon in setting our children and grandchildren on a straight path. In this Elul season, let us each work harder to fight our own apathy wherever it lies. Let us find inspiration our tefillah, and depth in our Talmud Torah. For we will not be the only beneficiaries of this extraordinary pursuit. Our children are watching, and our grandchildren are learning. This Yom Tov season, may our passion be contagious, to our children and grandchildren and may we reap the rewards for our efforts in nachat and shalom.