We Have Been Called Out by a Teenager: Will We Get Defensive or Get Serious?

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A few years ago, I went to see Rav Eli Sadan, the Rosh Yeshiva of Bnei David, a Mechina in Eli.  Maj. Roi Klein z”l, the hero who threw his body over a hand grenade in the 2006 Lebanon war to save his fellow soldiers, was a graduate of Bnei David.  So was Lt. Hadar Goldin, z”l, as was Col. Ofer Winter, who led the massive effort to get Goldin back after he was kidnaped and killed in the last Gaza war.  A growing number of officers in the IDF are products of Eli.  It seemed to me that something very special is happening in the yeshiva and I wanted to meet its founder and visionary to better understand what it might be.

Rav Sadan explained to me that in his yeshiva they teach the classic curriculum of Gemara, halacha and mussar; however, underlying all that they study is a common set of values and motifs they want to inculcate into the young men: living with emunah, faith in Hashem, and being devoted to a life of mesirus nefesh, selfless service to Him and to His people.  Every text they encounter, every law they analyze, is looked at from the perspective of how it can reinforce, grow and help them be more inspired in their emunah and in their devotion to a life of avodah (service).  In addition to classic texts, the yeshiva spends much time studying the writings of the Maharal, Rav Kook and other who focus on these themes.


On the first day each year, Rav Sadan hands each boy a piece of paper and a pen and asks them to write their goals in five years and ten years from that point. Where do they see themselves?  What do they want to accomplish?  He then collects the papers, submitted without their names, and looks through them. Rav Sadan explained to me that every year, almost everyone writes a version of the same thing: “I want to marry a great girl, I want to have a family and I want to have a great job where I can make enough money to live comfortably.”


Rav Sadan then turns to the boys and asks a piercing a question.  What did you write in your goals and ambitions for your future that reflects that you are a Torah Jew?  Is what you wrote any different than what someone without Torah and who isn’t observant would write?  Where are your aspirations spiritually?  What are your goals in avodas Hashem and in yiras Shomayim?


Rav Sadan’s goal for his students is that by the time they leave his yeshiva, each one thinks, feels, and acts like a Torah Jew with spiritual ambitions, aspirations, and goals.  He wants them to see themselves as having a personal mission in this world, a unique calling to serve Hashem in some capacity or form.  It is said that Rav Sadan calls every graduate of Eli in the month of Elul and asks, what did you do to serve Hashem and the Jewish people this past year?  How have you made the world a better place?


Rav Sadan’s extraordinary success has revolutionized the IDF with the number of religious officers having grown tenfold since he began.  Last year, he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize in recognition of his great contributions to Israeli society.  I walked away from the meeting very inspired, and the following year we were proud to host Rav Sadan for a Shabbos in Boca where, among other things, he met with our educators and leaders to share his approach.


I was reminded of Rav Sadan and his wonderful Mechina in Eli when I read a very provocative blog post this week.  Eitan Gross, a high school student who describes himself as a modern orthodox teenager, writes:


As kids, we are proactively exposed to media and entertainment that is anti-religious and contrary to Halacha. Is it realistic to assume that a teenager’s value system will not be corroded by the endless subtle and not so subtle attacks on Torah true values?


Aside from the challenge of not letting the modern world negatively affect our inner world, the supposed balance between religious values and secular values seems to be much more weighted towards the secular than the religious.


Modern Orthodox teenagers can tell you who Kobe, Jay Z, or even Shakespeare is, but very few will know R’ Chaim Kanievsky or R’ Herschel Shachter. We’ll know the history of America in depth, but won’t know how the State of Israel was established. We’ll know how to solve complex math equations, but wouldn’t be able to read a simple mishnah. We are infested with American culture, and forget our past. We care about world values, and neglect our own. We care more about Western morals than the true morals of the Torah. We are high school students before talmidim. We are aspiring sports players before yearning Talmud scholars. We are college graduates before yeshiva bachurim. We are Modern before Orthodox.


Many in our communities take up the attitude that G-d’s laws are a burden (or even immoral in certain cases) so they simply write off areas of Halacha as if they don’t apply. Of course, their kids get the message and proceed to pick and choose whatever is comfortable for them as well. And for the laws that are being kept, we treat them as if they are a checklist — Say Modeh Ani, check. Wash hands, check. Then go to davening, look on my phone and wrap my Tefillin before Aleinu because I’m so eager to get on with my day, but it still counts because I said Shema and Shemonah Esrei, right? Check.


We are so addicted to the secular world that Hashem is never given a chance.


You may disagree with his analysis or formulation, but I believe Eitan is on to something and we cannot dismiss his heartfelt and sincere plea to provide him and his peers with an education, community, and hashkafa that gives a relationship with Hashem a chance.


If Rav Sadan gave us a blank paper and pen, and asked us to record our dreams, goals and aspirations for the next month, year, or decade, would they include being a better eved Hashem, davening with more kavanna, improving our emunah and bitachon, living with more yiras Shomayim, or would they just list losing weight or getting in shape, earning more money, buying a bigger house, getting a nice car, and taking better vacations. To be sure, all of these are reasonable and in some cases admirable goals, but none of them reflect our core identity as Torah Jews.


There continues to be a great deal of discussion regarding the tuition crisis, and it deserves to continue to be addressed.  But, Eitan brings our attention to a parallel crisis, one more urgent and much less comfortable to deal with meaningfully.


In our parsha, Avraham is described as “Ha’ivri.”  Rashi explains that this title derives from the fact that he comes from “mei’eiver ha’nahar,” from the other side of the river.  Avraham is an immigrant to Cana’an.  Nevertheless, the midrash tells us he was called an “ivri,” and we continue to be labeled “ivrim,” not as a geographical description but an existential one. Avraham loved people, he was a selfless and devoted giver and he was dedicated to all of humanity, not just his family.  However, when push came to shove and everyone stood on one side of an issue that ran contrary to what Hashem wanted, Avraham had the courage, fortitude and faith to stand mei’eiver, on the other side.


When there is a conflict between our Western values and our Torah ones, which side do we stand on?  When there is tension between being modern and being orthodox, which side are we on?  As the progeny of Avraham we carry within our DNA the capacity and strength to be mei’eiver, to stand on the unpopular side; the question, though, is will we?  Eitan and his peers are counting on us to.