Saturday, March 17, 2018

Prophetic Teens

A few days ago, it came to my attention that some of the teens at our synagogue were upset with me. They felt that I hadn’t been publically supportive of their participation in the March For Our Lives. As you probably know, the march was organized as a reaction to the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, just over a month ago. About a dozen of our teens are joining some others from this area to head up to DC to join in what is shaping up to be a historic march. To make this trip more accessible to anyone who wanted to go, they also ran a GoFundMe, with all money raised going to subsidize the trip.

From what I heard, at least some of them feel that I should have spoken about the march and about their fundraising from the pulpit, and that I should have encouraged more donations in that way, too. There are plenty of reasons why I didn’t, but that isn’t the point—even if I was right on some level to not speak about this (at least in that forum), they are also right that I should have done so, because what they’re doing is so deeply important.

This shooting, and the movement which has been growing in its aftermath, has had a profound effect on some of our teens. For one thing, this was geographically close, which always seems to make tragedies feel more personal. But, more importantly, this shooting was close to our kids in other ways, too. Many of the students at Stoneman participate in NFTY-STR, our youth group region, and some of them also attend Camp Coleman, where some of our teens attend. A family who used to attend Beth Am send their child there. The point is that some of our teens personally know people who attend that school. Some of them were friends with one of the victims, Alyssa Alhadeff z”l. This is personal. And so, they are finding themselves deeply committed to this new, student-led effort to get something done to make our schools, and our society, safer. This isn’t just another march to these youth; this is bigger than that.

What we’re seeing—from our kids, and from the leaders of this new movement—is sacred work. And, I’m not using that term lightly, or generically. I think that we’re watching a group suddenly find themselves in the role of Prophets, whether or not they realize it. 

One of the first pieces I read in Rabbinical School (during the introductory week of our first year) was an essay by Ahad Ha’am entitled Priest and Prophet. The essence of that essay has stuck with me just about as well as anything I encountered in school. The gist of it is that every religious system (or, probably every vaguely-religious system, maybe every system of any sort) relies on a creative tension between Priests and Prophets. “Priests” represent the institution, the establishment. They work from within. They are a part of the system. So, they are good at getting things done, and finding compromises that work and so on. But, they are also subject to corruption—they can become slaves to the institution, serving it more than they serve the higher goals that they profess to hold to. Their willingness to compromise can, eventually, compromise them. We’ve seen this with religious leaders, with politicians, with just about anyone who gets into some line of work or calling for noble reasons, and eventually “learns to play to game” a bit too well.

They are countered by prophets who, in this extended metaphor, represent the purity of vision. Prophets are uncompromising figures of devotion to those higher ideals which, originally and ideally, animated the cause. Prophets are the ones who never lose sight of what we’re striving for, and refuse to water down that message, or that effort. They are zealous in pursuit of their goals.

But, they’re royal pains in the ass, too.

Because prophets won’t compromise and won’t back down, they’re annoying. They’re frustrating. And, they’re wildly ineffective. They’re good at yelling about important principles, but they’re terrible at actualizing any of them, because that always requires some adjustments and compromises along the way. Ideals are clean, but realty isn’t, and prophets just keep insisting that reality bend to their ideals, even though reality tends to stubbornly refuse to do so.

Ahad Ha’am’s point was that we need both. Without Priests, nothing can get accomplished. Without Prophets, eventually no one bothers even trying anymore. Priests apply the energy; Prophets create it.

Well, I can’t think of a group that better embodies the idea of unreasonable, unwavering, uncompromising, pain-in-the-ass dedication to a cause than teenagers do.

Our world has plenty of Priests. Our world has more than enough people who are willing to find ways to get things done, and to work in incremental steps, and to be reasonable. Our world is sorely lacking in people who refuse to back down, refuse to waver, and refuse to accept anything less than what they envision. We need those people to drive us forward, and to keep us on track.

Plenty of adults have tried to move the needle on gun-control. None have been as effective as these “kids,” in part because none have been as dogged. None have been as focused. None have been as prophetic.

We need this. We need these teens (and all those who agree with them) to stand up at yell. To scream, at the top of their unreasonable, unyielding lungs, that this will not do. That we, the adults who are ostensibly in charge, have to do something, anything to make this better. They may not know exactly how (although, they do have some ideas), but that isn’t the Prophet’s job. The Priests who hold the reigns of power will have to work through the details. But, they’ll do so only because these Prophets are holding their feet to the fire.

I’m going with our teens to DC, mostly because I wanted to be a witness to this. I wanted to see what happens when these young adults start to realize how much power they have in their lungs. I want to see what happens when these Prophets gather in such numbers as to scare the living hell out of the comfortable Priests of our day.

And, to anyone who thinks they can stand in their way, all I can say is: be careful. The teens are awake, and they’re angry. And they’ve found their voice. Thank God.

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