I have just come from yet another sad rabbinic meeting about the tragic situation of our youth. To their credit, over thirty rabbonim, health professionals and askonim spent an entire Sunday morning on the growing problem. The specter of alcoholism and drug addiction has once again reared its ugly head. Chadoshim, gam yeshonim – old drugs and even more dangerous new ones as well. Old terms mingle with new ones, as we speak again of substance abuse, but now also of texting on Shabbos and marijuana brownies. We worry about those going off the derech, but then we hear of entire families keeping some bizarre entity known as a “half Shabbos,” Rachmana litzlon. Let no one feel complacent or immaculate, for “there is no home without a death” (Shemos 12:30). Everyone is affected. It is now a full-fledged mageifah and we must all do something.
Obviously, the answer and the antidote are far from simple. There is no single remedy, nor is there one cure for all. But please allow me to suggest one fairly simple thing we can all do. Chazal (Sifri, Eikev 49; Yalkut Shimoni, Devorim 873) teach us, “If you wish to know the One Who created the world, learn Aggadah.” Our sages are clearly teaching us that there is a discipline and curriculum for learning about Hashem and it is Aggadata, the so-called homiletic material of the Torah.
What we are hearing from many rabbonim, guidance counselors, therapists and others who are attempting to deal with this horrific plague is that they are encountering an emptiness and abyss when it comes to the basic Yiddishkeit of these families. They often have no idea why they are doing the mitzvos they are performing. Often, even when they are still keeping all the mitzvos and avoiding the worst of the aveiros, it is done joylessly and with little understanding. Of course, there is no question that we are to follow all the commandments simply because Hashem has told us to. But in our era, young people in particular have learned to question what they are taught and they want to see depth and genuine feeling, phenomena they sadly rarely see at home.
Here is the real tragedy. People who “discover” Judaism late in life, or suddenly find a wonderful “Partner in Torah,” can change direction overnight. But our frum-from birth brothers and sisters have never experienced a two-hour Havdalah with singing and dancing. They have never heard an inspiring speaker “start from scratch,” explaining to them the basics of a religion that is strangely foreign to them.
As one gadol from Yerushalayim, who is familiar with the Eretz Yisroel part of this quagmire, told me, “There are now people who wear shemoneh begodim (an allusion to both the kohein godol’s garments and a Chassidic levush) and don’t believe in the Ribono Shel Olam.”
What has happened?
One answer is that in earlier, more innocent times, blind obedience, respect for traditions and generational customs were assumed and natural. However, we live in a world where all of these automatic triggers for observance have atrophied or completely disappeared. The internet has, of course, offered a glimpse of a world most of our people never imagined, let alone entered. All of a sudden, some of our people are faced with new attractions and lures, with little motivation to conquer these enticements. I have personally spoken with Jews of many backgrounds and persuasions, who all professed to disappointment and sometimes anger about their upbringing and education.
With the caveat that gedolim approve, I would urge that yeshivos and girls schools of all groups find time to present Aggadata lessons in the curriculum. To be sure, girls are already receiving more machsheves Yisroel and hashkafah classes than boys. Yet, there are significant problems with our daughters as well, perhaps because we rarely return to basics or encourage them to ask questions. Teachers themselves are often unprepared to answer fundamental philosophic queries and sometimes make matters worse with superficial answers, dismissal of the question, or worse, condemnation for daring to ask.
To be sure, Chazal presented another side to the Aggadah issue. Sometimes they seem to actually discourage its study completely. “One who writes down Aggadata has no share in Olam Haba and Rav Yehoshua ben Levi testified that he rarely looked at such a work” (Yerushalmi, Shabbos 16:1 and Soferim 16:2). The Maharatz Chayos (Mevo Hatalmud, chapter 32) and the Mateh Moshe (introduction) deal with this contradiction in various ways. The Noda B’Yehudah (Yoreh Deah II 161) and others make a distinction between the Aggados that teach us how to live, present inspirational stories and explain the pesukim in the Torah, which may be written and studied by all, and those that lead to halachic conclusions and have esoteric meaning that should sometimes be avoided.
Fortunately, there is no problem whatsoever finding proper materials for such a curriculum. In the past 60 years or so, perhaps a refuah before the makkah, numerous hashkafah and machshavah seforim have been written and even translated. The classics of the Maharal, the Ramchal and many others are now available in annotated editions, mking them accessible to all. The works of Rav Tzadok Hakohein, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, Rav Yitzchok Hutner and many others offer uplifting and profound explanations of what seemed incomprehensible or mundane. These should be studied regularly and discussed with a competent teacher, who can derive the practical lessons they all provide.
In truth, all of this is nothing new. From the very beginning, when Hashem first gave us the Torah, Moshe Rabbeinu drew us closer to Hashem with words of Aggadah (Shabbos 87a). The Gemara (Yoma 38b) even likens the monn to Aggadah, “which appeals to the heart like water for a thirsty soul.” The Baal Hatanya (Iggeres Hakodesh 23) quotes the Arizal, who says that Aggadata is what teaches us the ways of Hashem and grants us the wisdom to make proper decisions in response to all of life’s questions.
Rav Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu 4:252) stresses that Aggadata is “full of practical examples of life’s challenges and the proper responses. If people would learn this faithfully and commit these passages to memory, there is no question that they would turn around many hearts.”
Thus, we see that going back to Mattan Torah, Aggadata was considered to be the antidote to all the evils of society and a wonderful opportunity to turn one’s life around, a goal extremely close to our collective hearts right now. We need to convey once again the beauty and majesty of the Torah, along with the explanations that will fill the empty hearts and souls of our lost brethren. This may not be the end, but it is certainly a very good start on the long road back home.