The standout statistic that many have been quoting is the rise in persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. In 2009 this figure was at 34% of all teenage girls and 19% for teenage boys. That in itself is worrying, that one in three teenage girls was feeling so depressed. However, the most recent statistic shows the true nature of the current problem. The 2021 data now show 57% of girls and 29% of boys with this feeling – a increase of 67% and 53% – huge.
What is happening, how can it be that 2/3 of teenage girls are in such a state, the data further shows that 30% of teenage girls have seriously considered suicide in the past year – tragic. As one expert commented ‘Numbers like these are a code-red emergency. The US now needs five times as many child psychiatrists to address the mental-health crisis and help kids restore healthy relationships, many of which were lost during the pandemic. Social media is addictive — and it’s no substitute for in-person socialization. Every day, girls are watching hours of TikTok videos that range from choreographed dances to makeup tutorials where influencers apply “flawless filters” and “blurring balms.” Aiming for that level of perfection is poison for a 13-year-old’s brain.’
We can’t just ignore such statistics. We are part of that same world, the world of social media, of depressing news cycles, and of course we have been through the pandemic.
However, I believe we are in possession of something very powerful to help us and our children in the difficult and challenging world around us.
Let us turn to the parsha for instruction.
We ended last week on an epic high. We had just received the Torah and we were immersed in the heart of the Sinai narrative. This had begun at the start of Chapter 19 and had continued throughout Chapter 20.
Right at the end of Chapter 19, just before we receive the Torah, Hashem speaks to Moshe:
‘The Lord said to him, “Go, descend, and [then] you shall ascend, and Aaron with you, but the priests and the populace shall not break [their formation] to ascend to the Lord’ (Shemot 19:24)
We then have Chapter 20, Matan Torah. We therefore expect straight after Moshe will go back up Har Sinai with Aaron, as Hashem has commanded. However, as Chapter 21 begins, the Sinai narrative disappears and we find ourselves in Mishpatim dealing with a whole myriad of laws bein adam l chavero whether it is how to treat slaves, laws of damages, sensitivity to the helpless or fair dispensation of Justice.
For three chapters, we seem very far away from the heavenly experience at Sinai.
Then, just as soon as we left Sinai, we are back, at the start of Chapter 24:
And to Moses He said, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and prostrate yourselves from afar. And Moses alone shall approach the Lord but they shall not approach, and the people shall not ascend with him. So Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances, and all the people answered in unison and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and he arose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and twelve monuments for the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent the youths of the children of Israel, and they offered up burnt offerings, and they slaughtered peace offerings to the Lord, bulls. And Moses took half the blood and put it into the basins, and half the blood he cast onto the altar. And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear.” And Moses took the blood and sprinkled [it] on the people, and he said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has formed with you concerning these words. And Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended, and they perceived the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity. (Shemot 24 – 1-10)
This is the continuation of the Sinai narrative, so why not place this chapter straight after chapter 20? Then you would have three chapters about the Sinai experience in Yitro and then three about the various laws in Mishpatim. Why break in the middle?
The answer I think goes to the heart of the struggle in Western society. At Har Sinai, Hashem, through Moses, had given the Jewish people a mission statement: to become “a Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation,” under the sovereignty of God alone. As Rabbi Sacks explains:
‘They were to create a society built on principles of justice, human dignity and respect for life.’
However, the Sinatic experience is not enough to nurture that transformation. We cannot live our lives in the rarefied atmosphere of Divine revelation. We need to bring it down to earth, to daily living, to sanctify everyday life, to infuse meaning and purpose into our seemingly mundane existence.
Continues Rabbi Sacks:
Hence the remarkable project of the Torah: to translate historical experience into detailed legislation, so that the Israelites would live what they had learned on a daily basis, weaving it into the very texture of their social life. In the parsha of Mishpatim, vision becomes detail, and narrative becomes law.
When peoples lives are filled with the potentially depressing, addictive nature of social media and smart phones, are we that surprised that the majority of teenagers of the western world are struggling to find any sort of meaning or happiness from the world around them?
Living lives of responsibilities, devotion to community, to family and to God, this is what engenders a sense of meaning and fulfilment. However that devotion can not simply be lofty thoughts and ideals it has to be practical observance, commanded from the same source that spoke to us at Sinai.
Therefore, the six chapters are all linked, there is no real difference in Torah between the lofty ideals, the vision and the regular halachic observance, that brings the Siniatic experience to life on a daily basis.
The Torah placed the final chapter of the Sinai vision at the end of Mishpatim to link all the chapters together, the lofty as well as the mundane – all are Torah, all are part of the same Divine whole.
I will leave Rabbi Sacks to conclude the lesson:
There must be a vision to inspire us, telling us why we should do what we are asked to do. There must be a narrative: this is what happened, this is who we are and this is why the vision is so important to us. Then there must be the law, the code, the fastidious attention to detail, that allow us to translate vision into reality and turn the pain of the past into the blessings of the future. That extraordinary combination, to be found in almost no other law code, is what gives Torah its enduring power. It is a model for all who seek to lead people to greatness.