I would like to address this week’s column primarily to teens. I usually don’t limit articles to any particular demographic, and truth be told, although the article is not focused on them, parents might find something of interest, as well.
Believe it or not, when I was contemplating this week’s parsha, I started thinking about hats. Not just hats, but dresses, suits, shoes, outfits, school bags, and so many other things in life. I even started contemplating makes, years and models of cars, as well as nicely landscaped houses and many other items that make up the backdrop of our everyday lives.
“Fitting in” is very important for all people, but especially for people at your age and stage. If you are a bochur, you want to have the Shabbos hat that all the other guys have, the suit that is “in” at any given time, the shoes, the haircut, and the list goes on.
If you are a girl, you certainly want to have the outfits that are “in,” the school bag that “everyone” has, the shoe style, make and color that is “in,” and the list goes on. No one wants to be different, and even when constantly keeping up creates pressure on yourself (and your parents), the desire to be like everyone, or, to put it more succinctly, to just be “normal,” creates a tremendous drive that is often coupled with stress and anxiety.
Sometimes, it is not limited to you. Many girls want their younger siblings to dress a certain way and feel that it reflects poorly on them if their siblings are not clothed in what “everyone is wearing.” There are boys and girls who want their fathers and mothers to perhaps dress a bit more “up to date.” Of course, you are experts on exactly what is considered fashionable for middle-aged people…
There are also teens who look around at the parking lot and wonder why their father’s or mother’s car is not as up-to-date as most of the late-model leases. There are yet others who wish that their house or apartment would be more similar to what other “normal” people have…
Why Do We “Need” What We Want?
Now, before getting to my main point, it is important to note that what you feel is a real emotional need. You are not making it up. It bothers you, and it may even hurt that those needs are not being met and that your parents sometimes appear so out-of-touch with what is going on. Nevertheless, let us for a second dig a little deeper and analyze: Why do I have that emotional need to have one of the above-mentioned or similar items? Do we want it because we ourselves need it or do we need it because others have it and therefore I need it too?
Perhaps the question boils down to one of identity. Who am I? Who is the real me? Am I merely a reflection of what “everyone” is doing, what “everyone” is, or am I myself, with my own distinct identity?
It is important to understand that Hashem gave us life. He put us in this world, but He gave us our lives to lead, not someone else’s life to lead. The posuk says, “Ahalelah Hashem bechayai – I praise Hashem with my life.” The seforim state that everyone has his own life and his own distinct way of praising Hashem and connecting with Hashem. It makes no sense to live someone else’s life instead of your own.
So, perhaps the first thing anyone should do is try to get to the root of why he wants that item or wants his parents to get that item. Is he doing it because he truly has a need? Or are those needs just a reflection and fulfillment of other people’s desires?
Not Going with the Flow
This is where Avrohom Avinu and this week’s parsha come into play. The posuk calls Avrohom “Avrohom Ha’Ivri.” The simple explanation is that he was from “eiver hanohor,” so he was called Ivri, connoting “eiver,” the other side of the river. Chazal, however, tell us a much deeper explanation that everyone, both teens and adults, should contemplate. Chazal say, “Kol ha’olam mei’eiver echod v’Avrohom mei’eiver hasheini.” The whole world was on one side of the proverbial river and Avrohom Avinu was alone on the other side.
Avrohom Avinu lived in a world of idol worship. He was from a prominent family of idol-worshippers. That was the prevailing custom in the world, but Avrohom felt that he had to get in touch with himself. He couldn’t simply live his life a certain way just because everyone else was doing so. Certainly, it would have been easier that way, but he wasn’t looking for the easy way out. He was trying to get in touch with himself, trying to uncover the real Avrohom.
A river flows and it is easy to go with the flow. Chazal tell us that Avrohom was on the opposite side of the river. He didn’t take the easy way out of going with the flow. He took the intellectually rigorous route. He thought, “Who am I? What am I? Why do I want this?” He came to the conclusion that there must be a Hashem and he must conform to Hashem’s will, not the one imposed on him by society at large.
One of the hardest things to do is self-identify. To search and find one’s own identity. Who am I? Avrohom Avinu taught us to constantly self-analyze and try to determine what the source of our motivation is. Is our motivation stemming from a desire to fit in or is it coming from somewhere deeper?
Let us also realize that the desire to fit in is not always wrong, but it is certainly a motivation that involves shochad, psychological bribery, and must be thoroughly analyzed.
Creating Our Own Island
When it comes to identity, in addition to a self-identity, there is a related identity called family identity. Have you ever had a teacher who motivates his class by exulting in the fact that “In this classroom, we do things differently,” whether it is regarding rules or even having fun? Some teachers set policy differently than others and give the kids in the class a sense of “shtoltz,” a pride that they do things differently in their class.
There are families that seek to carve out an identity for themselves. The parents, after years of contemplation and avodas Hashem, become confident in their own identity and are often not nispo’el or affected by what goes on around them. If they are talented, motivated, smart and/or lucky, they are able to transmit that kosher shtoltz to their kids. “In our family, we are proud of being on the eiver hasheini, the other side. In our family, our Chol Hamoed trips are like this, but we still have a blast! In our family, we have this kind of Shabbos seudah and we love it! Even our friends like coming over and experiencing what our Shabbos seudah is all about…”
A family can make their own “island,” and if done right, it can be one where everyone is full of joy, fun and fulfillment.
Behind Closed Doors…
I would like to leave you with a secret. Many of the discussions that your parents have behind closed doors probably go something like this: “Yes, Moishy wants (insert item), but it is really not for our family. This isn’t our identity. On the other hand, Moishy is not yet mature enough to understand this and he may be resentful. In our times, resentment is poison. Kids must feel happy and fulfilled. So should we bend our values just a bit for the greater to’eles?”
“Yes, Chani really wants that outfit just because some of her friends have it, but she doesn’t really need it, and besides, money is tight now. Should we give in because we don’t want her to feel deprived? Or is now the time to put our foot down and to teach her what our priorities are?”
The important thing to note is that these discussions are taking place to a large extent because you are not living your life, but are trying to live someone else’s life or “everyone’s” life.
Again, I am not saying that many of your wants are not legitimate needs, but before you decide, think about Avrohom Avinu for a minute.
Author’s note: Many of the thoughts and ideas mentioned in this article were inspired while working on an upcoming tribute to Rav Eliyohu Tabak zt”l, who passed away last month. He and his wife, tbl”c Mrs. Chana Tabak, created a unique atmosphere in the “island” that was their home that is worthy of emulation.