As I climbed the ranks of the hierarchy in the Yeshiva of Philadelphia, I was saddled with the hardly coveted job of dining room gabbai. This entailed, among other duties, a responsibility to make sure that the bochurim maintained the proper ruach of Shabbos, and to bring any breach of etiquette to the attention of the hanhalah. Such incidents were isolated, but as it happened, one bochur acted way out of line on my watch, leaving me with the unenviable job of reporting the infraction to the Rosh Yeshivah.
First, I asked the boy why he had acted out, and he replied simply, “I need an outlet.” Armed with this limud zechus in hand, I knocked on Rav Elya Svei’s door, half-hoping he wouldn’t be there. He was. After excusing myself for having to spill the beans, I reported what had happened. Hoping to soften the report and not paint the boy in too bad a light, I immediately followed with the reason the bochur had given for his irresponsible behavior.
The Rosh Yeshivah’s response was illuminating. “Outlet? Of course! But when is he ever plugged in?”
The Rosh Yeshivah wasn’t dismissing this boy’s struggles. Rather, he was using this as a teaching moment. Yes, outlets are appropriate and even necessary, he was telling me, but they have their place; an “outlet” has no value unless it fits into a bigger picture of first “being charged.” (As a side note, the yeshivah invested tremendous effort into bringing out this talmid’s potential, and he is today a pillar of his community and a worthy role model.)
A conversation that I had with Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita just after I assumed my first two shtellers, serving as a rebbi in a day school and as the rav of a shul, which started within a couple of months of each other, drives home the necessity of having outlets. When hearing of my schedule, he asked me with concern, “But do you read books? It’s very important to find time to read!”
The Torah is very sensitive to our emotional needs. In fact, the Sefer Hachinuch explains, regarding the mitzvah of simchas Yom Tov, that just as Hashem created us with a need for food and sleep, He also created us with an inborn need for simchah. Knowing that people will look to fulfill that need, He gave us the Yamim Tovim as an opportunity to channel that need into avodas Hashem. By celebrating Yom Tov with all of its inherent simchah and mandated indulgences of wine and meat, we are able to enjoy everything we need and crave in a Torahdig manner.
I remember hearing from Rav Elya that Chazal, in their great vision and wisdom, added Chanukah and Purim to the list of Yamim Tovim because they understood that the difficulties and challenges of the long galus would necessitate more opportunities for simchah; otherwise, we might collapse emotionally, chalilah, just as one would from being deprived of oxygen or water. Our emotional needs must be addressed, and cannot be ignored any more than our physical needs.
Boys today (as well as adults) are subject to high pressure and demanding yeshivah schedules. (Although girls have similar challenges, I will focus on my daily experience dealing with young men.) Whereas in generations gone by there seemed to be “free time” and life did not run at such a frenetic pace, that simply is not the case anymore. The new normal leaves many young people feeling pushed and pulled in as many directions as their adult counterparts, with nary an opportunity to exhale. For their emotional health, they need outlets.
In fact, before the Agudah convention, I asked my talmidim what questions are on teenagers’ minds these days that we could address in that very public forum. Almost 100 percent of them wrote, without any prompting, “How to find kosher outlets that are acceptable and wholesome.”
They are searching for guidance. It behooves us to supply it.
Back when I was growing up, there were many opportunities to let it out. While several of the forms of entertainment that were widely accepted as harmless at that time, such as watching TV or attending ballgames, have since been deemed spiritually dangerous and have rightfully become off-limits, many “kosher” options remain.
Many of my peers and talmidim, as well as some outstanding rebbeim I know, have found or created their own outlets to provide a release from the pressures of life. Examples abound.
Ask some of the role models of yesteryear what a chess game could achieve, even for bnei Torah. (Who hasn’t seen the picture of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l lovingly observing two bochurim engaged in a chess match?) I had a talmid, today a budding talmid chacham, who expressed his artistic talent through origami and snow sculpting. Some bochurim are interested in photography or graphic design. Personally, I took flute lessons in elementary school. Although my music career was cut short due to lack of talent, many of my more gifted peers and talmidim have found the time to develop their musical skills and reap the resulting emotional satisfaction. Anyone remember stamp collecting, or other sorts of collections? One of my beloved rebbeim collects old seforim and Torah memorabilia that fascinate anyone with whom he comes in contact. There’s always learning safrus. Or woodworking. Or drawing. And the bookworms and “nerds” who were fascinated by topics such as history or aviation were always ready to share some slice of Hashgachah pratis, incredible war strategy, or wonders of technology they had picked up. And the list goes on.
We need to supply and encourage these kosher outlets, which fill real emotional needs. If our young people don’t find kosher outlets, they will inevitably be drawn to other, more problematic outlets. We are seeing our young people pick up habits such as smoking or drinking to relieve their stress, a trend that could be mitigated or avoided if they had been guided to cultivate other outlets. Now that recreational marijuana is becoming more legalized and socially accepted, it is frightening to think of how long it will take until otherwise clean-cut, frum kids start using that as an outlet and form of relaxation.
“Outlets” of this sort should never be considered acceptable. Let us read a few lines of Orchos Tzaddikim, one of the fundamental seforim about the way a Yid is meant to live. In discussing the bane of misdirected simchah, he writes, “There is another distorted simchah that pollutes our mitzvos and removes fear of Hashem from people’s hearts: those who get drunk and happy in party houses, which is followed by sadness, for many kilkulim come from such places.” He goes on to quote the words of the Rambam (I am unfamiliar with their original source in the Rambam’s writings): “Gathering for the purpose of drinking should be considered a bigger disgrace than a gathering of people completely exposed. Drunkenness is of the evil activities, for it diminishes the intelligence that Hashem breathed into us.” No doubt there are those who have been misled into believing that it is socially acceptable and even part of our culture to sit around and have a couple of shots. It is not! And neither is cigarette smoking, the dangers of which are well known.
Getting drunk on Friday night is not a good way for a husband to cultivate a wife’s respect. Girls in shidduchim who are rightfully repulsed by recreational drinking and smoking should make it clear that they cannot enter into a marriage if their potential zivug engages in this type of behavior. They should not be forced to accept these behaviors as the societal norm. Looking into the not-too-distant future, how will the young mother explain Tatty’s tipsiness after shul to her young children? Why should she have to worry about her husband’s risk of serious illness and her higher risk of being left an almanah because of his bad habits, which often lead to further addictions? These are not legitimate outlets or forms of relaxation. They are dangerous and irresponsible activities that are detrimental to building a bayis neeman b’Yisrael.
As a society, we need to band together to eradicate the notion that behaviors like these have a place in our world. There are movements in shuls and batei medrash to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for smartphones. Kol hakavod. I fail to see why mind-altering, destructive behaviors such as drinking and smoking should be more tolerated. We need to be role models for our youth of how a Torah society looks and functions, and that includes condemning the intolerable — not by simply lecturing about the evils of these irresponsible habits, but by respectfully educating, while providing healthy, satisfying alternatives.
Outlets? Of course! It’s time to rise to the challenge of the day and actively seek wholesome ways for our kids — and ourselves — to breathe a little when the going is tough. Starting from our children’s early years, parents and mechanchim, especially those who mold the neshamos of teenagers, need to address this challenge just as they confront all the other nisyonos that galus has thrown our way. It’s up to us to offer and facilitate healthy options for downtime and recreation.
To be sure, people’s interests vary. But we do not have to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of acceptable ways to recharge and enjoy much-needed menuchah, and we can certainly create an environment that encourages these positive outlets. Our Torah is broader than the land and wider than the sea, and Hashem wants us to use it as our guide in everything that we do. Even our recreational activities are Torah when pursued with its direction.
Great melamdim are able to tap into their students’ abilities, both inside and outside the shiur room or classroom. It behooves all of us to rise to the occasion and nurture our charges b’derech haTorah so that when they are plugged in, they can be at their best.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 738. Rabbi Plotnik, a talmid of the yeshivos of Philadelphia and Ponevezh, has been active in rabbanus and chinuch for 25 years and currently serves as ra”m in Yeshivas Me’or HaTorah in Chicago.
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