This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Va’eira – the second of the Book of Exodus – may just be the most depressing piece of text in all of Jewish literature.

There is anger, resentment, frustration, and suffering….suffering…suffering.  Our ancient Israelite ancestors endure the home stretch of enslavement under the gaze of the ruthless and unforgiving Pharaoh. And the Egyptians, some of them perhaps unjustly, suffer the plagues in this week’s portion of dam, tzfardaya, kinim, arov, dever, sh’chin, and barad.

I wish this wasn’t the case, but according to a new study just released by Harvard and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Psychiatry, this may be the perfect Torah portion to reflect on with more than 150 teens with us this Shabbat.

The study reminds us, yet again, about the tremendous pressures that are weighing down on our teens during this time in their lives in which they are particularly vulnerable.  The plagues of their lives, if  you will, are substantial, as they struggle to fit in, meet the high academic expectations that we’ve set for them, and find themselves….all during the same four year period. A period, by the way, in which your bodies are changing, your hormones are sending new signals, and your newfound ability to be independent is empowering you to want to experiment: perhaps with drugs or alcohol or perhaps in matters of physical intimacy.

Our teens are like the Israelites in Egypt so long ago, who are described by our tradition as geirim – strangers in the land that they lived.  Our teens are geirim because we have turned them into self-conscious beings – self conscious about their sexual orientation, or their material wealth, or their skin color, or body image, or all of the above, or none of the above.  Our teens are geirim because all too often the high school environments that they spend most of their time in are inhospitable to them…environments that not only on some level “allow” gun violence to happen in, but also other kinds of violence (verbal, physical, or seven sexual) that can, for example, coalesce around the horror of bullying.

The end result, which probably isn’t a newsflash to anyone in this room, is that being an American teenager today can be enormously difficult.  According to the study I mentioned earlier, 12% of all American teens have found the suffering to be so difficult to deal with that they have seriously considered suicide.  And 4% of all American teens have actively attempted to kill themselves.  According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for all young people between the ages of 10 and 24.

What are we supposed to do about it?  And how can we make life a little bit easier for our teens?

The traditional Jewish answer has always been to turn to God.  Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, echoing the teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel, notes that: “until Redemption, God suffers – as only an infinite consciousness can suffer – every [single] pain inflicted or agony endured by God’s creatures.”  According to Greenberg, we should find relief in knowing that it’s not just that God cares when we are hurting – that should go without saying – but that, when we are hurting, God hurts too.  Some of us might find comfort in knowing that God is able to be present for us, and can identify with whatever we are feeling, because God feels those feelings too.

But that approach doesn’t work for everyone – particularly if you struggle with the idea of God.

There’s also the self-help approach….the notion that we are sometimes best positioned to take care of our own mental health needs.  According to this approach, sometimes all we need to do is adjust our outlook on life.

Leigh Hunt once wrote: “Whenever evil befalls us, we ought to ask ourselves, after the first suffering, how we can turn it into good.  So shall we take this occasion, from one bitter root, to raise perhaps many flowers.”

That’s Hunt’s version of the proverbial dictum that we should make lemonade out of lemons.  When there are times in our lives when we are struggling, we can try to turn inward and convince ourselves that it doesn’t have to be all bad.  By changing our perspective, we can try to see the bright side of many difficult situations.

But for me, and for our Tradition, I think the most profound form of support for those who are suffering  is not unlike the experience that we are all sharing tonight.  When we are able to come together to be with each other…when we open ourselves up to being with others who are going to honor and embrace us for who we are, and what we stand for…that sense of friendship and support is deep and profound enough, in my experience, to enable us to get through the most difficult seasons of our lives.  Whether it’s with a friend, parent, youth advisor, rabbi, teacher, or therapist – I can’t urge us all tonight to lean on others when times are tough.

At its best, that’s what this synagogue is all about: a space for people to come together to be with one another, as we mark the most difficult passages of our lives, and the most joyous.  And that’s what NFTY is as well: a setting for our Jewish young people to gather at, with peers who are going through some of the same things they are, to learn together (as we will tomorrow), to celebrate together, and most of all…to just hang out and pass the time together….in a space that is safe and welcoming, and free of the difficult forces that plague so much of the rest of our lives.

It is worth pointing out that Rabbeinu Bachya, in 11th century Spain, made the following remarkable observation about the Exodus from Egypt.  He asserted that slavery, and all of the suffering that our ancestors experienced in Egypt, ended six months before our ancestors were freed.  It seems that, even though they were still enslaved, our ancestors had figured out a way to cope and survive their slavery without feeling oppressed.

That’s what I hope our young people will walk away with on this Shabbat.  That you don’t have to wait until high school graduation to be relieved of some of the burdens of being a teenager.  By seeking support in God, from within yourself, and most importantly: with the help of the friends and concerned adults that are with you this weekend…I hope and pray that you’ll find the inner strength to endure, and ultimately find a healthy sense of life-affirming freedom and redemption, just as our ancestors did so long ago.

 
 
I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the many, many friends who came out on Sunday morning to hear my lecture addressing both the pro and con sides of the question: Can/Should Jewish Law Evolve Over Time?.  I was moved by your open-mindedness as we studied together.  And I was humbled by your courage to share such personal perspectives during our dialogue afterward.  Thank you for your patience as I continue on this "rabbinic quest" to discern whether my position and authority as Rabbi permits me to officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies.  Most importantly: I hope you'll join us on February 10 as we continue with Session 2.

For those who were not able to be with us, the full text of my remarks from Session 1 can be found here.

The text reference sheet that was handed out to attendees can be found here.

Your questions, thoughts, and reflections are most welcome....feel free to add a comment here on the blog, drop me an email, or call the temple office so that we can schedule a meeting together.

Kindly, Rabbi Brown