Thursday, Apr 11, 2024

  CHILD’S PLAY

 

 

Like many young people, I spent most of my free time between high school and marriage running around with my friends. Of course, there wasn’t all that much free time to be had. Between studies, jobs, and dating, I was generally out of the house from early morning until late at night. Still, there were plenty of evenings when a honk outside my window would summon me and have me running happily out the door.

On one such occasion, as I prepared to dash out to meet my friends again, my father expressed some disapproval. Why was I wearing myself ragged going out on so many evenings? Why wasn’t I content to stay peacefully at home?

My dear father, z”l, European born and bred, had never quite clicked with modern American culture. That evening, as I ran down the stairs to meet my friends, I heard my mother tell him, “This is America. She’s young, she wants to have fun. That’s the way it is here.”

Indeed, that’s the way it is here. Life in these United States is all about working hard and playing hard. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of fun.

When we were children, we dreamed of being all grown up because then, we were certain, we’d be able to do whatever we wanted. Life would be one big bowl of roses… or candy… or whatever our little hearts desired. More sober societies, in the past, raised children who understood that growing up meant stepping into their parents’ shoes and shouldering their parents’ responsibilities. Modern-day Americans want to choose their own kind of footwear—preferably dancing shoes, or hiking shoes, or any kind of shoes that facilitate a good time.

Yes, Americans do work hard. But that’s more about personal ambition than about a sense of responsibility to society. In fact, individuality and personal inclination is the name of the game. One of the reasons people long to be rich is because they imagine that wealth will free them to actualize their every whim. The poorer one is, the more bound he is to the necessities of survival. Where money is tight, fun flies out the window. Or so we are led to believe.

 

Five Years Old?

I remember, on my move back to the States after years of living in Yerushalayim, being struck by the difference in the way radio announcers in each of those places make their radio broadcasts. There is a certain gravitas in the way the news is presented in Israel. Whether the subject is serious or casual, there is a certain solemnity in the way it is broadcast. Here, I was taken aback to hear radio men and women announcing sober or even horrific news items in the kind of perky tone a kid might use to show his mother the latest project he’d brought home from kindergarten.

“We are a nation of five-year-olds,” I remember thinking.

As a society, that doesn’t seem so far from the truth.

In all public forums, from politics to sports to entertainment, we’ve seen a sharp downturn in maturity levels, and certainly in levels of dignity and self-restraint. It is as if we’ve turned into a society of children who are trying to live out the dream of every kid that thinks growing up means saying and doing whatever he wants.

Female politicians wear gowns with partisan slogans on them to formal affairs.  Athletes refuse to honor long-standing patriotic symbols. If caught telling a self-serving lie, just say that you “misspoke” and go blithely on your way. If things don’t go the way you want them to, scream or curse or set things on fire. When everyone around you is as childish as you are, who’s to call you on it?

The saving grace is that not everyone is as childish as this society appears to be. There is still a solid backbone of ordinary American citizens who observe all this rigmarole with raised eyebrows and a sense of sturdy responsibility. Who bemoan the loss of the family and patriotic values which have long been the ground under this country’s feet. And who are working hard to keep their own footing, whatever the cost.

 

Razor-Sharp Focus

I’ve met parents who encourage their children’s friends to call them by their first names. This, in my humble opinion, is a bad idea. What we need these days is more respect for age and authority, not less. It’s all very well to be buddy-buddy with your parents or your friends’ parents, but lines must be drawn, and drawn clearly. Without them, you end of with a Lord of the Flies situation where a pack of unrestrained youngsters try to recreate the world in their own, immature image… with disastrous results.

Jews have a history of taking life seriously. Our most revered figures are also our most mature ones. That’s why we’re so drawn to them, and why we seek them out for guidance. Our gedolim are individuals who have moved far beyond childish ideas, away from the place where the imperative and the trivial lie cluttered together in one big, untidy heap… into a zone where their focus on the important stuff is both unceasing and honed to razor sharpness.

If maturity means looking life right in the eye and accepting it for what it is, with all its obligations, its potential for sorrow but also its fulness of joy, then we’re on the right track.

As frum Jews, we are an island in the sea of a larger society. Though we try to keep our shorelines pristine, there will be some inevitable coastal littering. We, too, have to some degree lost touch with the kind of reverence we ought to feel, especially toward the Supreme Authority. How do we dress and sit and focus when we daven and when we learn? How seriously do we take that which deserves to be taken seriously? How much weight does having fun carry, and how much does it displace other, more significant pursuits?

These are all questions that ought to be asked by thinking people. And, hopefully, answered. With honesty, with humility, and with an eye toward changing, improving, and eventually attaining the spiritual maturity which, at the end of the day, should be our highest goal.

Because, as fun as it may seem on the surface, we do not want to be a society of five-year-olds!

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