The Young 80-Year Old and the Old 15-Year Old

It happened about ten years ago, but I simply can’t forget it. It was Motzoei Shabbos, the first night of Selichos. There is always something unique and perhaps even haunting about the first night of Selichos. It is late, chatzos halaylah, when the chazzan starts saying the first word of Kaddish with the unique Yomim Nora’im niggun. You wake up regardless of how tired you are.

I don’t want to talk about the first Kaddish, but rather a stanza in the piyut of B’motzoei Menucha that I think offers something to think about as Rosh Hashanah is upon us.

I happened to be davening in a shul with a renowned mashgiach who, at that time, had been a mashgiach for more than forty years. He had seen generations of bochurim and yungeleit and was still deeply involved in giving hadracha to bochurim and yungeleit. He was involved in shalom bayis issues and many other areas of difficulty being dealt with by young people.

I happened to be observing him at one point during the Selichos when, suddenly, I noticed him wiping his eyes. Tears were flowing, and as much as he appeared to be trying to control them, he couldn’t. After the Selichos, I went over to him and asked him, “Why was the mashgiach crying?” He replied, “When I was saying the words ‘Pnei nah el hatlo’os v’al l’chata’os — Please look at the suffering and not at the sins,’ I couldn’t help but cry. I know very well what so-called sins people are doing. I am a mashgiach. For many years now, I am in the ‘aveiros business.’ I am telling you that nowadays, things are different. I am constantly counseling bochurim and yungeleit, and I can tell you with clarity that the aveiros are ‘shvache aveiros, weak aveiros.”

The Sins of Today’s Generation Are a Result of Shvache Nerven

I can’t remember the exact words that he used, but the gist of what he said was that almost all of the aveiros that he sees, even the aveiros that are chomur, severe ones, do not come because the person was rebellious and intentionally wanted to rebel against Hashem. They come from poor coping skills or, in his words, “shvache nerven.” He explained, “We live in a generation when people have very little resilience. They get very easily thrown off their tracks and despair easily, and then, when they are in a matzav of despair, they just give up and fall…

“They have such a hard time dealing with even the most minimal adversity and certainly large amounts of adversity. Their coping skills are so poor that as time passes, they seem to have increasingly less grit. When faced with a nisayon, even one that is not terribly difficult, they lose their ability to think rationally, take a deep breath and focus to ensure that clear-headed thinking overcomes their knee-jerk emotional reaction.”

He went on to cite a line from the piyut that we say on Hoshanah Rabbah: ‘Hoshanah nefesh mibehalah – Please, Hashem, save the nefesh, the soul, from behalah, turmoil or upheaval.’ When in the throes of a nisayon, even a small one, a nefesh that is in turmoil becomes so off-kilter that it falls. It cannot think rationally. It gropes and flays its arms in a fit of irrationality.

“Even when there is no true nisayon – something as seemingly insignificant as an insult, or a difficult test in school, or complexities on the social scene – many young people fall off the deep end or into depression.”

He concluded, “I became emotional because I thought about how much people are suffering today. They suffer so much that they simply can’t cope. They are so easily discouraged. Their nerven, their emotional strength and resilience, are so weak that they fall, but their aveiros are not as bad as they look. I was begging Hashem to look at the tolaos, their suffering. Look at what brought them to the aveirah. It was not a rebellion against You, but just general weakness that has become so pervasive that it is scary.”

Now, this mashgiach said this some ten years ago, when things were far different than today.

In this week’s Yated, in an interview that this writer conducted, Rav Doniel Lehrfeld, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Bais Yisroel in Yerushalayim, a rosh yeshiva who has been teaching bochurim for fifty years, said that today he sees the yeridas hadoros every year or two. A dor lasts a year or two until the next one starts…

A Positive Limud Zechus

Why am I writing this seemingly depressing thought on Erev Rosh Hashanah? Shouldn’t Rosh Hashanah be a time for an upbeat message and a fresh new slate? The answer is that this is a positive message.

We sometimes become despondent when we see the state of Klal Yisroel in many areas. We say to ourselves, “What is going to be? If Moshiach doesn’t come soon, he won’t have anyone to come to.” The answer is first and foremost that there is a tremendous limud zechus on this generation. This generation – despite its affluence and so-called “easy life” – faces nisyonos, spiritual hurdles, that few generations in the past have faced. Added to this is the fact that we have extremely poor coping skills. Still, it is not an inherently rebellious generation. Even those who fall generally do so out of despair, yiush, and an inability to cope rather than meridah in Hashem.

On the flipside, look at all of the wonderful bochurim and young families who, despite facing nisyonos and ongoing yeridas hadoros of such magnitude, are still serving Hashem with such dedication. They are learning, davening, doing chesed, and establishing true Yiddishe homes where the husband, wife and children are so deeply dedicated to avodas Hashem.

Please, Tatteh in Himmel, when you come to judge Yidden this Rosh Hashanah, look at the tolaos, the travail, the difficulty and the suffering of Yidden as they try to serve You. Look at how despite all of that, so many are doing Your will in a generation in which it takes real mesirus nefesh to overcome the pervasive nisyonos. Please, Hashem, don’t look at the chataos in a self-contained way, but look at the tolaos that have brought to those chataos. Look at how even the chataos are products of shvache nerven, where the smallest distraction or the smallest insult has the ability to knock a person in this oh-so-sensitive generation completely off his/her tracks. There are mitigating factors. We have been born and placed in a generation where our attention span is like silly putty and where “feelings” are paramount.

We are not tough. We aren’t even weak. We are just nothing…

Yes, of course every person is responsible for their actions. Nevertheless, just as lehavdil, when we come before a judge in court down on earth, a good defense lawyer will offer many mitigating factors in an attempt to have the judge either throw out the case outright or at least strongly minimize the punishment, we, too, beg Hashem on Rosh Hashanah to look at the mitigating factors. “Pnei nah hatlo’os v’al l’chata’os.”

Retaining Youthful Vitality

Perhaps there are two parts of Selichos that we will be saying this week and throughout the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah that we should say with special kavanah because they are so relevant in this shvache nerven generation. In Shema Koleinu, we beg Hashem, “Al tashlicheinu milfonecha, v’ruach kodshecha al tikach mimenu – Hashem, do not throw us away from You and do not take Your holy spirit from us.’ In this generation, more than any other, there are so many obstacles seeking to drag us away from Hashem by removing the “ruach kodshecha,” by exposing us to all kinds of tumah that severs us from Hashem’s ruach kodshecha that is inherently found in every Yid. We must invest special effort in begging Hashem to please not cast us away. It is not hard. We need extra help, Hashem. Please!

There is one more line that we say. It is the next line in Shema Koleinu that is possibly even more relevant in our times. We say, “Al tashlicheinu l’eis ziknah – Hashem, please don’t throw us away in our old age, when our strengths wanes. Please do not forsake us.”

Old age does not necessarily mean chronological old age. In fact, I have seen eighty-year-old men and women who are fresh and full of purpose like young bochurim and, sadly, especially in this generation, I have seen fifteen-year-olds and even younger people who are “old men.” They have no strength, no spark in their eyes, no spring in their step, no motivation for anything, certainly not to serve Hashem. They are full of yiush. This Yomim Nora’im, let us beg Hashem on behalf of ourselves and our children, “Please, Hashem, don’t let us ‘feel old’ in our avodas Hashem. Don’t let us give up and say, ‘Forget it. Learning is not for me. Davening is not for me, Staying away from aveiros is not for me. I am too old. I have no koach.’”

Let all of us focus on how every small nisayon that we overcome is so beloved by Hashem. He looks extremely favorably at every small baby step that we take.

Certainly, if we resolve not to be “old,” but rather to try to preserve that spark of ruach kodshecha, we and all of Klal Yisroel will be written in the book of tzaddikim.

Tichleh shanah vekileloseha, tocheil shanah ubirchoseha.