What Do Teenagers Owe and To Whom?
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
February 4th, 2012
Last week I wrote about what we as parents and grandparents owe to our children and grandchildren. They did not ask to be born. We created them, and in that instant is the origin of our obligation.
Our children and grandchildren also don't begin as equals. There are differences in home environment, in financial support, in innate abilities, in desires. They don't go to equal schools, which don't receive equal funding. The world isn't equal and the world isn't fair. In this world of ours we as parents and grandparents owe many things to our children, our grandchildren, our teenagers.
Tonight I address the flip side of that equation. What Do Teenagers Owe and To Whom? They owe many things: to themselves, to their families, to their communities, to the world. Nothing comes easy. There are no free lunches. There is no gain without pain. All the clichés are true, for all sides of the equation in life.
I also acknowledge that any set of generalities cannot necessarily be appropriate to any particular situation. Yet there is no other way to speak. Again, I write because I share these words in realms far wider than our sanctuary. I hope and pray that they make a difference in lives.
Following our Talmud class this week Dr. Richard Schieken pointed out to me that while society thinks and speaks of "rights," "entitlements," Judaism speaks in terms of chiuv, obligation. It is not what we get, but what we give. It is this Jewish mindset that proscribes these remarks.
Teenagers owe it to themselves to take care of their bodies so that they serve them well, serve them adequately for the long run of their lives. Society is not obligated to fulfill or repair what they do to themselves. It is their chiuv to protect themselves from the consequences of tobacco, alcohol, sex – disease, unwanted pregnancy, speeding and bodily harm.
Teenagers owe it to themselves to learn as much as they can, widen their minds, add to the repertoire of skills, steep themselves in culture and imbibe wisdom from every source. They owe it to themselves to develop their minds. The goal is not get many "shingles" on the wall. The goal is to widen their perspective of the world so they can gain a better perspective of themselves.
Teenagers owe it to themselves, their families and to society to learn and adopt the rules of the road and play by them. We owe honesty. We owe integrity. We owe righteousness. We owe courtesy. Rules and laws structure how people interact with each other so that everyone will have good, happy and productive lives. Even when life isn't fair, our – their obligations don't change.
Teenagers owe it to themselves to be prepared to take personal responsibility for their lives and stand on their own two feet. While my parents never said it to me, never, ever, I felt it inside of me, without words, that some day, however distant, I would have to be responsible for myself to myself. Somewhere on a continuum my parents' responsibility for me would phase out and I would have to take over. I owed it to myself to be prepared.
Teenagers owe it to their families to be good people, cooperative, involved, sharing the load, the chores. The family is society in the microcosm. Here is where we learn how to be partners with everyone and in everything we do. Being a teenager is not easy. It is hard to figure out life in the changing landscape of raging hormones and the demands of school and social networks. But home is the nest. They owe to the rest in the nest, loyalty, responsibility and truth. They will grow and leave the original nest and create their own. The noun becomes a verb. They owe to themselves and to their partners/spouses to nest well.
Teenagers owe to society to be responsible citizens of the world, good stewards of the environment, and involved in a good greater than themselves. The world doesn't owe them. They owe the world. We all do. There is no doubt that the world is a crazy, insane place. It is hard to understand it. Yet Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote the following:
"I would say to young people a number of things…I would say let them remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all the frustration and all disappointments." His words are good for us, too.
Teenagers owe it to themselves, to their families, to society and to the world to be exemplars of the core teaching of faith. It has direct implication and application in every corner of life:
hazing in college fraternities,
cheating on tests,
proper behavior to people of differing sexual orientations,
the proverbial "helping little old ladies cross the street" which stands for so much more,
and, to shun and reject hate, guns and violence in any form:
"Love thy neighbor as thyself." "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
What do teenagers owe to God? To seek Him. To ask questions. To look at the heavens, at newborn babies, and stand in awe of all existence. I don't worry about God. I worry about them.
With all of this I do not intend to write a manifesto, some creed for teenagers. I write for all of us. With last week's sermon and this, living when each daily newspaper reveals tragedy after incomprehensible tragedy, sorrow heaped on sorrow, we, adult and youth, need to face each other as ask:
How can we live?
How should we live?
How can we be happy?
What do we do to help each other?
What do we owe to each other?
What do we owe to the world?
What do we owe to God?
In the interpersonal dialectic of person to person, person and community, we each need to find our personal answers. It is not about how much money we earn. It is not about the house or the car. It is not about title and status. It is about our personal holiness, our sacred person, our very soul. In typing this sermon I once mistyped owe and in its place I typed woe.
Woe is to us if we cannot learn what we owe to each other.
Knowing my fondness for country music because it talks about us, here and now, our joys and sorrows, life and death, a song that has echoed in my heart was written by Randy Travis and is entitled: Three Wooden Crosses. In it he sings about a farmer, teacher, hooker and a preacher. The bus they were riding on was hit by a truck. Of the four, only the hooker survived. He sings of the other three:
"That farmer left a harvest, a home and 80 acres
The faith and love for growin' things in his young son's heart
And that teacher left her wisdom in the minds of lots of children
Did her best to give 'em all a better start"
And that preacher whispered, "Can't you see the promised land?"
As he lay his blood stained Bible in that hooker's hand."
Yet it is the punch line of the chorus that stands out:
"It's not what you take when you leave this world behind you
It's what you leave behind you when you go"