Tanner Street Trouble
Parshat Devarim/Tisha B’Av
As a child, Will always seemed to gravitate to more violent forms of play than the other boys in his neighborhood. Even when his mother took away his toy guns and swords, Will always found a way to turn innocuous toys into weapons. By the time he was seven, many neighborhood kids wouldn’t play with him, and the ones who did were usually the ones most comfortable with being bullied.
When he got to school, Will had a hard time sitting still. His mother brought him to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with ADH/D and ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) and prescribed a bucket full of pills, but that didn’t make him do any better. By the time he was eleven, he had figured out that he could sell many of those pills to the older kids in the high school next door. Without much fanfare, Will dropped from law abiding citizen to child criminal.
Even a child criminal needs protection, so Will joined the Tanner St Trouble gang at the age of twelve. He liked hanging out with the big kids who talked a big game, and they liked cute lil’ Willy, and soon he was spending most of his time out of school on the stoop with the TST. Whenever his mother had the time, she would drive up, yell at him and the rest of the TST thugs, and drive him home yelling some more. But most of the time his mother was working, trying to support the family as a certified nursing assistant at the local hospital. CNAs make only a little more money than greeters at Walmart, and work long hours doing that, so Willy’s mom was not around much of the time anyway.
Will never really made it to high school, it wasn’t part of the requirements in the TST (although the running joke was that he was in “High School” almost all day long). But he was good working as a runner, bringing “product” from one street corner to the next, helping the TST expand their “bidnit.” Sure he got beat up and robbed from time to time, but he bore it with honor, and the TST rewarded him with a Magnum .357 on his fourteenth birthday, to better protect the product.
Will’s mother was taking a cigarette break outside the hospital when the ambulance pulled up. She barely noticed the teenager handcuffed to the stretcher, surrounded by policemen and EMTs; it was just another day in the hood. But when she saw the baby blue Nike Air Force sneakers sticking out of the sheet, her heart skipped a few beats. She ran to the stretcher, and there was her baby, unconscious and covered in blood. She later discovered that Will had been involved in a turf war. In the course of five minutes, he killed a rival gang member, severely wounded an innocent bystander, and took two bullets to the abdomen. If he ever got out of the hospital, it wouldn’t be to go back home, but to prison where he’d spend a decade or two.
Will may be fictional, but he’s unfortunately not exceptional. In today’s world of missed opportunities and broken potential, millions of young men and women are starting life with a minimal chance of success. And often it is due to something that was entirely missing in Will’s life; a father.
The fatherhood crisis in the US has been growing with alarming speed. In 1960, just 11% of American children were being raised in homes without fathers, today the numbers range from 24% in some parts of the country to over 40% in others. Not having a father in the home wreaks utter havoc on the children; they don’t have a positive male role model, they don’t feel protected, they lack the discipline and confidence that a father imbues in his children, and they don’t witness normal interactions between husband and wife. This results in children who are missing more than half of the developmental social skills they should have. (They only have female related skills, and lack male related and couple related skills.) The results are staggering. Here are some of the statistics, more are available here.
· 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (US Dept. Of Health/Census) – 5 times the average.
· 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes – 32 times the average.
· 85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average. (Center for Disease Control)
· 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average. (National Principals Association Report)
· 70% of youths in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average. (U.S. Dept. of Justice, Sept. 1988)
· 85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average. (Fulton Co. Georgia, Texas Dept. of Correction)
What the US needs now more than anything else is fathers. Forget green energy, water in California, income equality, gridlock in Washington, and foreign policy, we need fathers. We need fathers who are responsible and present, playing baseball with their children on weekends, doing HW with them in the evening, and reading bedtime stories to them at night. We need fathers who will provide financially for their children, give them the confidence that keeps them away from abusers and bad relationships, and give them discipline to finish school and then go on to college. #BringBackOurFathers!
The Jewish people also desperately need our Father. The Sages tell us that when the Jewish people went into exile, on a deep level, the Shechina, G-d’s Heavenly Presence, went into exile as well. What this means, is that while G-d certainly continues to run the world, He does it from a more hidden place. This results in a Jewish people who wander the world, feeling unprotected, not feeling our Father in Heaven’s love and presence.
Looking at the history of the Jewish people in our last 2,000 years of exile, we display all the symptoms of children growing up in a fatherless home. We are often attacked and hurt, the haters of the world don’t see anyone who will protect us. We stray from the values of our parents, sometimes even committing religious suicide, as we don’t have the discipline we might have if our Father was closer by. We have a lot of infighting in the family, as we don’t have a proper parental relationship to model. We are suffering.
If we look back at the time of the first Temple, we get a glimpse of what a well-functioning Jewish world looks like. Our father was home, His miracles visible all over the Temple. He took care of us financially, as the Land of Israel flourished giving prodigious crops. He protected us to the point that when the Jews made pilgrimages thrice yearly, none of our neighbors came to raid and plunder. We were a marvel to the world, and millions of non-Jews came each year to see the amazing Temple, and more importantly the beautiful relationship we had with our Father in Heaven. We were a confident people, we were a peaceful people, and we thrived.
So how do we bring back our Father?
The Sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of all the infighting and hatred taking place among the Jews. It was as if G-d said, if all my children are going to be fighting in My home, I’m going to kick them out, and be an absentee father until they work it out. Our Sages also tell us that the only way, we will get our Father back is when we live peacefully with each other, when we stop slinging barbs at each other, when we stop gossiping, hating, and judging. Only then will he bring back the whole family, and once again be our visible and active Father. We are still in the “you are adults, work it out!” stage.
We are struggling on that front. Our Holy Land is torn apart by divisive politics, our communities in the US not far behind. We have shul politics, and school politics, and political politics, and we seem so quick to ascribe malice to those who don’t agree with us.
We see terrifying levels of Anti Semitism on the rise in Spain, England, Holland, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. Most synagogues in the US now have some sort of armed guard on Shabbos after the Poway and Pittsburg tragedies. We start to realize that all we have in the world is each other. This does bring our community together, but do we really need wars and Anti-Semitism to bring us together? Can’t we do it without coercion?
On Saturday night and Sunday we will be sitting on the floor for Tisha B’av, mourning the loss of our Temples, but more importantly, mourning what a world looks like when our Father goes into exile. Let’s commit to each consider how we’re going to work on bringing our family back together, even when the world isn’t forcing us together. Let’s commit to stop the slander, the gossip, the unnecessary hatred, and the looking down at other Jews. Let’s reunite the family. Because when we do, our Father will surely come back and take His place at the head of the table.
Parsha Dvar torah
In this week’s portion, Devarim, we read about the final discourse that Moshe gave the Jewish people before he passed away. It was quite a long lecture, as it took over a month. However, it was a time that Moshe used to review with the Jews not only the laws he taught them, but also the lessons they needed to take from their experiences in the desert. That included reminding them of certain mistakes they had made. Moshe did this sensitively by only hinting to the experiences, instead of directly confronting the people with their shortcomings.
One of the events Moshe reminded the people of was the sending of spies to “check out” the land that G-d had already promised would be good. The spies came back and gave a degrading report of the Land of Israel, the people believed them, and wept all night (the first Tisha B’av ever). G-d then decreed that the Jewish people would wander in the desert for forty years, and that none of the people of that generation who slandered Israel would live to see the land.
When Moshe reminds the people of that event, and describes the people coming to him to request spies, he says the following: “You approached me, all of you, and said, ‘let us send men ahead of us to spy out the land for us.” (Deut. 1:22). Rashi comments on the apparently extraneous “all of you,” and explains that Moshe was hinting to a mistake they made. “You approached me, all of you in a hodgepodge- the young pushing aside the elders, and the elders pushing aside the leaders” (Rashi on loc.)
Rav Chaim Volozhin (1749-1821, Poland/Russia, known as the father of the yeshiva movement), asks why Moshe went out of his way to point out a seemingly small misdeed especially when the real topic, the sending of the spies, was such a severe one?
Rav Chaim answers that Moshe wanted to preclude any possible excuse the Jews could have given for sending the spies. The Jewish people might say that they sent out the spies with the best of intentions, and it was not their fault that the spies came back and persuaded them to believe the slander against the land of Israel! To counter this, Moshe showed the people that from the get go, they had the wrong intentions in mind. If they were truly noble in purpose when they sent the spies out, they would not have advanced the request in a way that would be disrespectful to others. By pointing out that they came as an irreverent, insolent, and impudent, group, Moshe was proving to the people that the problem was rooted not only in the persuasion of the spies, but also in the people who sent them.
We all get into arguments with others, whether at work, at home, or at the synagogue. Often we feel that we are in the argument only to champion the truth, and there is nothing personal about it. Even if things get a bit tense in the argument, that’s OK, because we are out there defending what is just and right. In this week’s parsha Moshe gives us a litmus test to determine our motives. If no one’s feelings get hurt through our argument, then it is an argument of principles, with each person solely trying to discover what is right. But the minute any person feels insulted, we know that we have crossed the divide and taken it into the personal attack arena. Hurt feelings, disrespect, or insensitivity are the smoking guns pointing to something less than noble. Let us use Moshe’s tool to help us disagree more effectively, which will lead us to live in harmony, and in that merit we will see the rebuilding of the Temple which was destroyed as a result of discord.
The Parsha of Devarim is a record of what Moshe told the people before he died. In the later Parshiot, Moshe reviews some of the key laws (mostly those that will empower the people to set up a stable, functioning society in Israel), but in this Parsha, he reviews the salient events that occurred in their forty year journey. The goal was to ensure that those entering the land wouldn’t rest on their laurels and assume that if they were great enough to inherit the land, then obviously, they wouldn’t fall to sin. To negate this idea, Moshe recounts how the generation that witnessed the greatest miracles of all time (the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Reed Sea), and saw G-d at Sinai in the clearest revelation mankind ever experienced, still fell in the trap of sin.
The basis for this phenomenon is the principle that, “Whoever is greater than his friend, his Evil Inclination is greater.” (Talmud Succah 52a) The higher one’s ability to soar, the lower they are able to fall. (This applies for geographic locations as well. Yerushalayim comes from the merging of Yeru Shalom which means “will see peace,” because it has the ability to bring the entire world peace. This could be accomplished by being the focal point of our prayers, and the city in which the whole world would come together to serve G-d in His temple. In that same way, it also has the ability to see the greatest negation of peace, as it has. I believe, and please email me if I am wrong, that Jerusalem has been the city that has seen the most violence in the world over the course of its 3,000+ years of history.) The generation of the desert had so much pushing them towards good but, to balance that, they also had so much pushing them toward evil. Therefore, Moshe felt it imperative to warn those going into Israel that, although they may be on a lofty spiritual plane, the danger of sin abounds.
Moshe first hints to the Jews’ major sins, including the Golden Calf, their complaining that G-d took them into the desert to kill them, the sending of the spies, their sins with the Midianite women, Korach’s rebellion, and their loss of faith in him at the sea before and after it split. After hinting to these sins, Moshe begins to detail certain events such as the appointment of judges and the failed mission of the spies. He also reminds them of how they had to circle around Israel and not enter from the south due to the Edomites and Moabites not allowing them through their lands, and G-d telling them not to fight with them.
Moshe then reminds the Jews of how, with the help of G-d, they were able to defeat giants like Og, and mighty kingdoms like Sichon, thus telling the Jews that if they put their faith in G-d, they need not fear the imminent conquest of Israel. Finally, the Parsha closes with Moshe describing the agreement he had made with the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe regarding their settling land on the eastern side of the Jordan River. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: The true test of character is… how we behave when we don’t know what to do. ~ John Holt
Random Fact of the Week: In 1924 a new Ford cost $265.
Funny Line of the Week: I don’t like people to talk while I’m interrupting.
Have an Introspective Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham