“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” — Socrates
Though written more than 2,400 years ago, this generational lament composed by the early father of Western philosophy may well be spoken about our generation today, albeit by substituting “Instagramming” for “chatter.”
It is probably true that throughout most of human history, most adults have uttered some form of this same idea. How many children do we know — or have — who, rather than being grateful for having shoes on their feet, complain that they do not have the right kind or brand of shoes on their feet? How many teens expect others to pick up after them, and how many talk back to their parents, teachers or adult neighbors? Do we even need to add up and compare the amount of time they spend playing video games to the amount of time playing outside with friends?
The truth is that this is a broad generalization that does not recognize the fact that much of our youth are indeed quite grateful, polite, respectful and physically healthy individuals. While we could collect a compendium of data that testifies to the social degradation of our society, it appears that this tendency to decry the state of the younger generation is indeed an ancient byproduct of our human inclination towards nostalgia and, perhaps, towards judging others as well.
“Pirkei Avot,” the great first- and second-century collection of rabbinic wisdom literature opens by teaching us about what the Men of the Great Assembly used to say: Be deliberate in judgement.
The Ritva, a great medieval rabbinic commentator and legalist, taught that the word “deliberate” (m’tunim) in Hebrew is related to the word “to be placed” (n’tunim). The dictum could therefore read, “Be placed in judgement.” He interpreted this teaching to mean that we should be extremely careful of judging others because, in doing so, we are often, in truth, judging ourselves. Without the jargon of modern psychology, the Ritva was essentially telling us that when we judge others, we are actually projecting our own failings upon them. By separating ourselves from our moral failings and placing them upon others, we can foster a temporary sense of peace concerning our own selves.
Given this teaching, it might be an interesting experiment to consider whether or not we adults, in judging the younger generations, are actually engaged in a subconscious attempt to raise our own status in our own eyes.
Are we not guilty of these same social transgressions? How many of us have purchased the newest smartphone, even though the one we owned at the time worked just fine? How many of us have given dirty looks to other drivers on the road because they are actually driving the speed limit or, perhaps, simply made an error or are driving slow because they are unsure of where to turn? Do we never treat the TSA agents like burdensome pests, rather than officers ensuring our safety? Do our parents, despite their human failings and aging minds and bodies, remain revered sources of wisdom and guidance, or do we begin to treat them like children? Do we show respect or contempt to the elderly person slowing us down? And what example do we set for our children and grandchildren when it comes to screen time and social media?
I ask these questions not to make us feel badly about ourselves but only so that we realize how many of the qualms we have with the younger generations are also present within our own and even within ourselves. Ought we teach gratitude, simplicity, manners, respect and the importance of physical endeavors? Absolutely. And we ought to be living examples of these characteristics so that our children and our children’s children can look to us not just as teachers but as models for righteous living.
Rabbi Jordan Hersh serves the Beth Sholom Congregation in Frederick. A graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, he spent a year with Beth Sholom as a Gladstein Fellow before becoming its full-time rabbi.