At-risk youth in the Torah

Thursday, 30 November, 2017 - 11:16 am

The dilemma of how to deal with “at-risk-youth” is one that faces every society in the world. How should a family deal with a child who engages in edgy or risky behavior. What should a school or close-knit community do with such a youth? Varying solutions (or more accurately termed “reactive approaches”) have been proposed, but it is a major work-in-progress.

Does the Torah offer any insight into this? While driving to and from a distant prison visit yesterday, I was listening to a podcast by Rabbi YY Jacobson wherein he offered this teaching in the name of Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky, a respected Torah sage of the previous generation.

Our forefather Yaakov declares that he crossed the Jordan River on his way to Charan with only his staff in hand. The obvious question is why did he not come with a display of wealth as did Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, when seeking a wife for Yitzchak? Eliezer had ten camels laden with goods, jewelry, and a document stating the extent of Yitzchak’s wealth. Why would Yitzchak allow Yaakov to go to Charan empty-handed? What kind of way is that to enable him to secure a marriage partner?

Our sages explain that on the journey Yaakov was robbed by his nephew, Elifaz. Eisav instructed his son Elifaz to kill Yaakov. When Elifaz confronted Yaakov, Yaakov convinced him to suffice with taking his possessions thereby leaving him penniless and worthless – as good as dead. Elifaz agreed. Yaakov survived, but he arrived in Charan with only his staff in hand.

Who was this Elifaz and why would he disregard his father’s command in exchange for monetary compensation? All references to Elifaz in the Torah and the commentaries describe him as a very immoral person from his early youth. He had an affair with his father’s wife. He committed adultery with multiple women, and he ends up living with a woman whom he fathered with another man’s wife, and she gives birth to a son named Amalek. He was not above murder for hire, and robbery was a way of life.

So knowing what we know about Elifaz, why would he spare Yaakov’s life? Rashi cites our sages explanation, “because Elifaz was raised in Yitzchak’s bosom” and his grandfather’s influence caused him to reconsider murdering Yaakov at that critical moment. So the grandfather Yitzchak, despite seeing what kind of rascal Elifaz was, continued to show him love. While that love was not sufficient to turn Elifaz’s life around, it did manage to secure the future of the Jewish nation by preventing the murder of Yaakov.

Had Yitzchak taken the conventional wisdom approach of “throwing the bum out of the house”, history as we know it may have looked entirely different with the possible absence of the Jewish nation.

Easier said than done? Most certainly. Does it address all the issues? Not entirely. Food for thought? Absolutely! Keep the conversation going!

Hope to see you all on Tuesday night at the evening of inspiration with Rabbi Manis Friedman entitled, If It’s All For The Good, Why Does It Feel So Bad?

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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