Yet again we are at an utter loss for words. Shmuli Silverberg, of blessed memory. An 18-year-old who lost his life in an act of horrific violence. A student-scholar of Torah. A mentor and friend. A mensch. Contrasted against his light is the persistent darkness personified by his alleged murderers. Five young men of similar age to Shmuli. Five young men so lost as to see no value in another’s life.
Ki Teitzei, this week’s Torah reading, speaks of the “wayward and defiant son,” a young man so obstinate that he turns away from his parents, his elders, and his community.
Any young man is subject to internal and external influences, which, without guidance, mentorship, education, and experience, leave him vulnerable. Michael Gurian, a therapist, and educator who writes extensively on boys and their moral development, notes in The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Our Boys and Young Men, America has the most violent, non-war population of children in the world; more people in the U.S. per capita commit violent acts every day than anywhere else, and 90 percent of the perpetrators are male. Our young men make up 80 percent of drug-addicted and alcoholic youth. And our boys constitute the majority of children who are homeless, murdered, in foster care, neglected, and institutionalized.
In the Torah reading, the wayward son is brought before the elders, in the public arena and described by his parents as “disloyal and defiant.” What was the makeup of the boy’s character? What was the dynamic between parents? Between parents and son? What were the expectations, disappointments, perceptions in the home? Where were the community’s elders during the boy’s upbringing? Gurian writes that our sons “are desperate for admiration and respect. They need us to be present at their accomplishments… The whole extended family needs to form a clan environment of admiration…” And H. Pereira Mendes writes in Bar Mitzvah, For Boyhood, Youth and Manhood, a thoughtful book written in 1956, that a young man “can be helped only by education, through study, precept, example, and association.”
What can be done by parents and by a community to raise up young men girded with strong morals and a character that enables them to contribute to society? Who is guiding our young men when so many families are fractured and dispersed geographically? What are our schools, Jewish and secular, doing to shape the moral character of our boys and young men? How do we help our sons on their journeys to manhood?
I’m sure that each of you has a boy or young man in your life who would be bolstered by your presence, interest, and encouragement. Help keep him from turning away. And may Shmuli Silverberg’s memory be for blessing.
Rabbi Jay Strear
President & CEO