Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript – April 25, 1999
Feder: This is Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson and Rabbi Jacobson is here in the studio. First of all, we want to thank all of you who have written in and called, we want to urge you to keep on communicating with us.
The idea of the day, something that everybody is talking about, is the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado. Now I put a few thoughts together and have some introductory questions, but obviously, this is something we can explore in depth.
Murder is as old as Cain and Abel. If you look in the Bible, it’s one of the oldest things there is. And murder is committed for all sorts of reasons: poverty, oppression, revenge, war, plain ordinary madness. But in this case, as everybody notices, what’s different is you have a bunch of middle/upper-middle class kids who are not suffering from all the aforementioned usual reasons why people have all this trouble.
What we can’t know is—and these things are happening more and more every couple of months—we can’t know what the personal psychology is in these kids’ homes, but we can ask some of the more obvious and profound questions which are:
- How can this be explained?
- How do we deal with this, digest this, in our lives?
- How on earth do we take preventative measures against things like this happening in the future?
So this is a whole lot to chew on, but I hand it over to you now.
Jacobson: Well thank you.
Feder: The ball is in your court now.
Jacobson: At the outset I should say that whenever you deal with any type of tragedy of this nature, it’s very difficult to talk about it in a logical and organized way, but when you put yourself, G-d forbid, in the shoes of the parents and family that have been broken and will be broken forever because of this unfortunate incident, then you know that after all the hype in the newspapers and all the radio talkshows and everyone finishes and exhausts their thoughts about it, and the psychiatrists and the psychologists and the educators and the President, etc., these people will live with this for the rest of their lives.
When you put yourself for a moment in that type of situation, talking about it is almost useless because you don’t feel you can console, or in any way repair and heal the pain involved of the losses. I include the pain even of relatives of those who perpetrated this, even though I don’t want to equate the two, but this is a tragedy all around that has forever altered the history of certain family units. That, I think, is the first thing that must be acknowledged.
Yet, Maimonides does write that v’hachai yiten el libo, “the living shall take to heart.” When all of us witness things of this nature (we see it in our own communities and in our schools, which makes it so much more devastating), that young people can turn on their own friends in a school which is supposed to be an oasis, a haven, from all the violence in the street, it forces us, and we are compelled, to address it.
But what does it mean to us? This isn’t just their tragedy, because it’s our tragedy. It’s a country, an environment, that allowed something like this to happen.
Now of course it can be dismissed as an aberration, but even if one argues that that’s the case, Talmudic law, Jewish law, dictates that when something happens in your community, in your country, you are responsible for it. You have to do something about it. Even if it was an aberration. Compound it with the fact that it’s not an aberration, unfortunately, as we see with certain trends, you are forced to look at it. Unfortunately, we deal with problems only when they emerge and we can’t ignore them any longer.
So when this happens, everyone wrings their hands and screams and cries…
Feder: And yet it has happened over and over again in the last few years.
Jacobson: Right. And I think what has to be addressed, as you put it, is preventive measures—but more importantly—what is the root? How is it possible, if people who are not mentally imbalanced should be able to consider, let alone pull off (they say it was pre-meditated with over a year of planning, so this is not exactly an act of insanity), what kind of environment and education can allow things like that to happen? Does it have to happen to each of our families, G-d forbid, before we wake up to recognize that we have to look at something?
So I’d like to share some thoughts in that vein. But I wanted to just lay it out, although qualifying it by saying that there’s always deep pain when you feel the pain of others involved, and this isn’t just an academic analysis and psychological overview, but one has to look at it like it’s your own family and your own brothers and sisters, and community, and system.
Obviously, no one condones murder, and everyone is shocked by the event. But even from shock you can also define a society’s attitude. The shock is that innocent blood was shed, but I haven’t heard shock at an educational system that can allow for that. If education is to mean anything, who cares whether they’re brilliant mathematicians or philosophers, or physicists, or doctors, or computer engineers if a person can lift his hand to another person? From my point of view, and from everything I experienced in my school years, education is not about knowledge, it’s about living. To learn how to live a productive and constructive life.
Feder: In a community…
Jacobson: Yes. And not only do we not hurt another, but you enhance other people’s lives, because without that, what’s the point of going to school anyway, to make money? To have a career? To make ends meet?
So what we’re looking at here, if you cut to the chase, is the question, what is at the heart of education? What do we expect from the best of our students? Because when things like this happen, and everyone likes to relegate it to, “Oh, this is an exception. These are these type of kids, they must have grown up in certain broken families. There may be problems with their school. But it’s not in our community.”
I completely disagree with that. I would say, maybe our educational foundations need some correcting. Maybe there some basic fundamental elements that are lacking and when they filter down, spill over, it can end up in an act like that. Obviously, in 98% of the cases it won’t be that extreme, but this may be happening to kids all across the country, except some of them won’t act out their most violent instincts, and some may.
Feder: When you say education, you don’t just mean school, do you? I mean, you’re talking about how a society educates? How a culture educates? What you absorb from living in your own house? From watching television? From going to the movies or watching what the President does? Education comes in many forms, not just when you walk in the door of a high school.
Jacobson: I’m glad you pointed that out. When I say education I mean as a holistic environment that is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Education is not just actual school, it’s what’s going on at home, what’s going on in the streets, it’s what’s going on on television. And beyond that, education doesn’t stop when you graduate. Education is in all of our lives because even as adults we are constantly being educated by our environment. Except as adults we are, so to speak, more protected. We’re not in our formative years. So not every event and incident shapes us.
But we need to discuss all of the above and to do this in an organized way, we need to do this piece by piece or else we’re going to become overwhelmed.
Feder: So which section of the world that educated these kids should we look at first?
Jacobson: Before we get into the specifics of whether it’s school or home, we should look at certain basic principles of just what is education. I bring a story in my book, Toward a Meaningful Life, in the chapter on education, about parents are having problems with a child who’s rebelling quite seriously and come to their mentor, their rabbi, their Rebbe. And he listens to their problem and he looks at them and he says, “You’ve come to me eighteen years too late.”
Not that he wasn’t offering to help, but his point was very well taken based on a verse in King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs, “Educate your young according to their way, so as they age and grow older, they will not wander away from it.”
In other words, education is much more than the transmission of knowledge. It’s the shaping of a life, of life’s attitudes, that child’s attitudes, the viewpoint: what matters, what’s important, what isn’t important.
Feder: But this is always within the context of interacting with your family and with a community, otherwise, what’s the point?
Jacobson: Of course, of course. So the first and foremost element of education is human responsibility. That you’re here on this earth with a cause and a purpose, and you have to live up to that calling. This isn’t a jungle, this isn’t just a random life that is driven by whim and instinct, and it isn’t just a struggle for survival, survival of the fittest, I may add, which only lends itself to a completely narcissistic attitude.
Feder: At this point it’s almost impossible not to say that as we look—I came down here in a cab today, I must have inherited some money from somewhere—it’s impossible not to look around, read the newspapers, see what goes on, everything from top to bottom, and see that there is a complete absence of any sense of right and wrong, an absence of morality (I’m stating this in an extreme case) that greed, that lust, that violence, that sex, that everything involved with getting and spending, is celebrated perhaps more now than I’ve ever seen in the time that I’ve been alive.
And if that’s what’s all around these kids, what is left for them?
Jacobson: I’d like to focus on two major points which I’m leading up to which will address the point you just said. And that is, number one, from a Torah perspective, from a Jewish perspective, and from a universal perspective, a person without a cause is worse than a person without oxygen. “Cause”, that invisible word “cause”, it’s not tangible. You can’t point your finger at it, you can’t touch it, but cause gives purpose to your life. It gives you a reason to rise to a higher calling. I think when that’s lacking, there’s an unbelievably deep, profound void in a person’s heart and soul that needs to be filled, and they will find one way or the other to fill that void.
Feder: The vacuum can’t be tolerated.
Jacobson: Right. It cannot be tolerated. You can get away with it, you can distract yourself, but particularly young people who, in a way, are not yet completely immersed in the material world of building a career, or making a living, have that free time and, in a sense, that luxury to where that vacuum won’t come back to haunt them.
And I speak of myself as well, as a teenager going through adolescence, and a parent should never forget his or her own youth, because that’s the best way to be a teacher to your own young children, is by remembering when you were there. If you forget that for one moment, you can’t relate. So we all have that type of passion. A young person has a deep, burning fire inside of them. They call it hormones, or adrenaline, or the “fire in the belly,” but they have it inside of them.
Many people often see that that fire is a destructive thing. You know, “young people rebel, they demonstrate, they don’t get along with their parents, they fight with establishment,” but in truth, the fire is coming from a very healthy place. It’s the power and the fire of the spirit that refuses to conform to the status quo and wants to change the world but it’s frustrated and it doesn’t know how to.
So you hear a lot in the news today about these kids, how they were saying that “we were ostracized, we were different, we weren’t accepted.” I don’t know the particulars in their particular case, and they have had warped minds and been poisoned by all kinds of other ideologies, but one thing is clear: if you cut through all of it (in psychology it is known, the problem that you are told is never the real problem, there’s always something else beneath the surface) you hear one basic thing: the cry of young people not feeling that they have a calling to fulfill, or they feel that they are outsiders and not being respected for that.
Now we know that young people don’t really have developed ideas about things. A young person needs to have that vacuum filled, that fire fed, and it has to be channeled. And if it isn’t channeled, it will be destructive. There’s no question in my mind that today, you see that drugs and youth, or for that matter music, which is a major industry…I always wondered, why in this century did music become such a major industry? Why wasn’t it an industry 100 years ago? Or even 50 years ago? And I’m sure there are many different reasons given, “Once LP’s and CD’s became more available,” but yet, music has always been part of the world, but now it’s a billion/trillion dollar industry.
I think that music, particularly as it’s taught in Kaballah (Jewish mysticism) music is like the wings of the soul. Music is a way that the soul travels. It’s spiritual travel, essentially. And when you have a deep vacuum and void of nothing transcendent in your life, you look for quick ways to satisfy that need. And music does it quickly. In a 2-3 minute song, who doesn’t dance to the music, or sing along? It can transport you to another place.
So that can be very healthy. Music is a tool that, in lack of other spiritual values, is a form of spiritual yearning. And many young people may not acknowledge it, and many people may not acknowledge it, but from the perspective of spirit, the search of spirit, to actualize itself, to soar, music offers a very easy alternative.
Feder: Well, you know, these kids in Littleton were big music fans.
Jacobson: Yes. This is the point. When the vacuum is really not filled, music cannot replace the true needs that a spirit has to have because you can’t just get away with listening to rock or some other alternatives. And I’m in no way trying to criticize the entire music industry, because, in essence, it’s a pure thing. But everything has to be channeled properly.
So we’re dealing with young people, and the point that I want to make, is that it is critical for parents, educators and schools, that you have to instill in people from a young age, the younger the better, the attitude that they are responsible to a higher being.
You know, the separation of church and state in the United States is quite obvious, and no one disagrees with that. And I don’t want to come across at all preaching, or pontificating, and wringing our hands saying, “Oh, look how terrible, they have no G-d in their lives.”
But I do want to say something in defense of the founding fathers who are so revered in this country, the Constitution. Even atheists use dollar bills that in American currency has the words “In G-d We Trust” engraved in them. And I haven’t seen any of them burn that money.
There’s certain wisdom in that element that they put “In G-d We Trust” on the bills, even though the same constitution guarantees the separation of church and state, which the same founding fathers felt there was no contradiction in putting that statement on the currency. Which is rare. I don’t think any other currency in any other country has that. And there, perhaps, the church is much more powerful that it is in this country.
I think the reason that’s behind it is that their intention was not a religious G-d, but a non-denominational G-d, meaning that the idea “all men are created equal” is impossible if you do not accept a Creator. Because perhaps, if there is no Creator, then maybe they aren’t all created equal. Maybe some are better than others, or not equal.
The statement “all men are created equal” paradoxically, means that a person can get up in this country and say, “I have no G-d in my life. I want to burn the American flag”. That itself is guaranteed as a right, because we believe that since G-d created you, you have the right to do that.
So the idea that there is a higher calling, that you in your life are responsible for that higher calling, is a foundation without which all education will erode.
Feder: But that if you think you were created by a higher power then there is a meaning to your life. If there is no other apparent meaning at all, at least there is that meaning.
But let me make this statement. Maybe there’s 130 kids at Littleton High School’s senior class. I’m willing to bet, the world being what it is in America today, that 90 of them don’t believe in G-d, or don’t even think about G-d. And they haven’t gone around blowing people up and shooting people. They seem to be able to get through life. And parents may take them to church or synagogue or whatever. But I know teenage kids, and a lot of them are questioning at most, and some of them are just in a modern world where they don’t really believe that much. They may be seeking, but they don’t necessary believe. A lot of people in this world, a lot of teenagers, get by without this belief, without this knowledge, without murdering anybody, without stealing, without doing all these other things.
Jacobson: It’s a very fair question. And how I would like to respond would be to go back to something I said earlier: symptoms that express themselves in extreme ways reflect on the state of mind of all young people today. The reason that 98% or 99.9% of young people would never stoop or consider doing something like that is that they did “get” a G-d in their lives, except it’s not called G-d. It may be called responsibility, it may be that they grew up in a home where their parents cared enough and the education around them gave them that sense that there’s just an absolute line that you do not cross.
I don’t care what you call it. But the fact that there is an absolute line that you do not cross…who created that line? As soon as you say “absolute” line, that would be the only way I could agree and say, yes, I think 99% of the kids would never do a thing like that.
I’ll challenge you in return. If they don’t believe in a G-d, and they don’t have any absolute values, what makes them not cross that line? What is the taboo?
Feder: Well, like you say, they must have some values. Maybe they’re not sure exactly what they are, but they do have some basic values, the most basic value of all being respect for someone else’s personal life, for the integrity of their existence.
Jacobson: This is the point that I want to lead to. The word “G-d” is a very distorted, misconceived and stereotyped word in this country. And I hesitate using it because of the stereotype. When I say G-d, I do not mean what most people would react to. Usually most people react, “Oh, so we need religion in order to counter such type of behavior.”
Feder: They think you mean like some sort of organized religion.
Jacobson: Right. Or a question like yours. You can be a very good person. You see so many people who are completely virtuous and who are non-criminals and have no G-d in their lives. On the other hand, you have many people who are great believers in G-d and they have quite criminal behavior.
So I’m quite familiar with that, which is why I like to quote the story where this rabbi was going to a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, and he invited one of his neighbors, and his neighbor said, “You know, Rabbi, what’s the point of me going along with you? I don’t believe in G-d”.
And the rabbi smiled and said to him, “You know, the G-d that you don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in.”
When I say the word G-d, I don’t mean it in many of the images that most have, including myself. What I’m talking about is that absolute line, that “you are not all that there is.” You said it very clearly. That respect for another person.
Let me ask you a question. If we live in a society of survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, you do anything for yourself to survive, and that we have evolved from bacteria millions of years ago… Have you ever seen considerate bacteria? They step away so another bacteria can make its move?
So I ask you this? What gives the human that invisible instinct that they will not cross a certain line? That they should actually have absolute respect and can never cross that boundary?
Frankly, I don’t like to bring up this topic. But I think, that if you really went down to a philosophical view on this, I can make a very strong argument for anarchy. Because, let me play the skeptic for a moment and you, Mike, can play the believer…
Feder: This is going to be very hard for me.
Jacobson: Well, try your best.
Feder: I’ll get a medal if I do all right on this.
Jacobson: Well, that’s also a statement. If a skeptic can play a believer, and a believer can play a skeptic, what does that say?
Feder: Okay, shoot.
Jacobson: I will now proceed to make an argument for anarchy. Complete anarchy. That the only thing that keeps the glue together in a society is primitive fear. We don’t want to be hurt so I’m not going to hurt someone else. But green lights and red lights are simply arbitrary necessities in order for us to be able to co-exist. But there’s nothing absolute about red lights and green lights. If nobody’s watching, why can’t I pass a red light unless I’m afraid of a cop who may give me an $80 ticket and points on my license.
For that matter, if I’m alone, or if I can get away with a crime, I can cheat the government or I can get away with a crime against another human being and I’ll never be caught so I won’t be embarrassed by it, why shouldn’t I?
And I could go on with a list but we don’t have all evening here. But a list of similar questions. What’s the argument against anarchy? So let me immediately eliminate certain options.
Someone may say, well, that’s true. Morality is ultimately arbitrary. Moral relativism as they call it. And what keeps a society together is some type of fear. Fear of punishment. Conscience.
Feder: Fear of embarrassment.
Jacobson: We also have this evolutionary quirk called a conscience which we’d love to get rid of. You know, we feel bad about certain things…
Feder: Associated with shame and guilt.
Jacobson: Yes. A conscience. Like sometimes you do something and you don’t really feel good about it afterwards, but I’m sure that someone could patent a pill, a “conscience-killer pill”—I don’t want to give anyone ideas—but you know, you do something and you don’t feel guilty. Guiltless behavior. Great!
But the argument against all that, whatever argument you’ll give me, and I’m sure you can give me one, I will say to you, you call that G-d. You don’t want to use the word G-d but call it some other name? But basically it comes down to this. That there is an understanding, some kind of inherent feeling, that “I’m not all there is. Because if life is all about me, number one, then the end always justifies the means, and I should be able to do anything I want if I can get away with it.”
Feder: With all due respect, if you look around, and as simply as the President of the United States, and almost everyone who is examining him, everybody who is in Congress, everybody who is in the Senate, if you went down the line, everyone of our leaders, our theoretical moral leaders, if you look at our business leaders, if you look at stock traders, if you look at all these people, one after another…
But let’s limit it to the President of the United States who is theoretically “the father/leader of our country”…
Jacobson: The paragon of morality…
Feder: …this man gets away with anything he can and so do half the Senators and half the Congress people. If you look in the newspaper the other day, a religious leader out in Brooklyn got indicted for stealing $7 million. Everywhere you look, this is my answer to that, people are getting away with everything they can get away with, and if they get caught, they deny it anyway and hire a lawyer.
Jacobson: Okay. So how many steps away is your description from a few teenagers in Colorado getting up and murdering…
Feder: Not far, not far…
Jacobson: It’s just that that’s shocking and this, well, everyone’s doing it. That’s the whole entire difference. And that’s why, going back to my original premise, is that sometimes you need an infection to burst out and then you suddenly see that that infection is not only there, it’s all over the place.
And I couldn’t agree with you more. I don’t at all, and I want to qualify that we’re not here for a fire and brimstone talk of how bad society is…
Feder: That’s my job.
Jacobson: …because I believe in human dignity, and the Divine presence in our lives, and when you respect, you have confidence that people can rise to the occasion. But I think incidents of this nature, in addition to everything you just put on the platter, for an intelligent person, a sensitive parent, if you really want to do something about it, you have to use all of this as a springboard, a catalyst, to create awareness in your own lives.
I’m not getting into a discussion now of “Do you need a G-d to have morality or don’t you need a G-d to have morality?” But I’ll put it this way: If you don’t have some absolute respect, a line that cannot be crossed, that it’s not all about you, your survival and your comfort – from my point of view, don’t call it G-d if need be – but that’s what must be taught to young people and to older people.
And the younger it’s taught—impressionable children pick it up. And education, going back to your point, is not just what’s taught in school from nine to three, it’s 24 hours a day. If what a child picks up in school is contradicted at home, it’s inconsistent. That what you learn at school you don’t need to do.
Feder: I think at this point we should take a little break to re-identify ourselves. You’re listening to Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson, and I’m Mike Feder. This is WEVD 1050 AM in New York.
Let me give you some of the ways in which you can send us questions on the various topics you are listening to, anything that you have to direct towards us. The most important thing is the telephone number: 1-800-3MEANING or 1-800-363-2646. You can also e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d like to also tell you that we have a new website that’s currently under construction where you can download transcripts of this program. It’s www.meaningfullife.com.
I also want to mention that each week the blueprint, the guide that we refer to quite often is Rabbi Jacobson’s book Toward a Meaningful Life and this is published by William Morrow, currently in the stores, and this is wonderful, inspirational book which I personally can urge you to buy. I wouldn’t tell you unless I really liked it myself and got a lot out of it.
Okay, so we talked about the vacuum and the emptiness, but I want to get back to examining the nature of this emptiness and this vacuum. I mean, teenagers have always had this wandering spirit, this feeling of having no identity and trying to fill something up. This has been happening since there was the first teenager however long ago it was. But what is the nature, in your opinion, is there a special quality to our current American emptiness that’s different than it ever was before?
Jacobson: I believe again, with a short qualification that when you are living history, it’s hard for you to see things in perspective. We see things right now and we don’t always have an immediate bird’s eye view. So often we think we may be living in the best of times or the worst of times. With that being said, and as a student of history, I think we all can acknowledge that we live in an unprecedented prosperous time. Prosperity in the United States (although there’s a poverty level of course) is unprecedented in the sense of travel, communications, leisure and free time. And it continues to accelerate.
Free time sounds like a great thing. We all say, “Oh I wish I had some free time.” But free time, when there’s nothing to fill it with, can be one of the most challenging things in a person’s life.
Feder: Like the saying, “Idol hands are the devil’s playground…”
Jacobson: Yes. But I’ll put it this way. From a psychological point of view, when a person doesn’t have a driving force, for example, depression is, as one of the Chassidic teachings state, not as big a problem as the bigger problem: that it demoralizes you and you don’t feel motivated to make a move, so it creates a kind of vacuum.
There’s an interesting statement in the Bible. It says when they threw Joseph into the pit, it said the pit was empty. It had no water. So the commentaries all ask, “Is that not redundant? If the pit is empty, obviously it has no water?”And they explain, it had no water but it had snakes and scorpions.
And psychologically this is often taken to mean that when there’s a vacuum, there will always be something to fill the vacuum. There is no such thing as a vacuum in life. So when you look around today, there’s so many alternatives—from the Internet, to video games, to music, television, sports—and the channels continue to grow. And each of them independently are fine programming. Some is destructive, but let’s say neutral programming, but the bottom line is there is a lot to fill your time with. And the spirit is not being nourished and fed.
The single most important thing I would say to any parent listening in this country or wherever it may be that we can learn from an incident of this nature is, start nourishing your child’s spirit. The spirit is not nourished like a body is nourished. It’s not through food and it’s not through drink and it’s not through entertainment, and it’s not through television, and other forms of recreation. A spirit is nourished first and foremost by paying attention to it.
Do you know what a child needs more than anything else? Not fun and games. A child needs the acknowledgment that I exist and that I matter. It’s an invisible type of food, because it doesn’t sound like you’re giving the child anything, but a child who is deprived of that, look at the devastating results we see today. When a child is given that, it’s almost invisible, like health, it doesn’t feel like anything. When you’re healthy, you don’t feel anything. But we know what it’s like when you’re deprived of health.
A child needs to know that I matter, I matter to you. You’re ready to spend a few minutes with me, it doesn’t matter for what. Maybe just sitting with a child when they’re crying, or laughing, or just stooping down and picking them up. It’s that type of respect that the child learns from how to respect another person… for no other reason except that they exist. Not only when the child does something great at school, so of course you reward him or her, obviously it goes without saying that you would acknowledge achievements, but respect when there is nothing the child did.
The child comes and the parent spends that one or two minutes that acknowledges, with total respect, the child’s presence, is perhaps one of the greatest lessons of feeding the spirit. So the spirit doesn’t need much. But what it needs qualitatively is very profound.
Do you think abuse and dysfunctionality is only when the parent strikes the child or is abusive in some other way? Do you think it’s not also abuse when parents comes home and all they have on their mind is the stock market or the newspapers, or they’re tired and just want to go to bed and they don’t even see their child, or even look at him. They say, “Hey, the child’s doing well. Your marks are good, great.” “How’s it going? Great. See you tomorrow.”
That is, in a subtle way, as abusive because it’s not feeding the spirit of the child.
Feder: Let me ask you this. You’re bringing up some point that is, of course, extremely profound and is, in a way, the answer to this problem. To spend time with your children and show them respect and care and sympathy. But, you know, cows, dogs, mice take care of their children without having to be told. Why does such a wonderful creation as a human being need to be instructed in this?
Jacobson: Maybe this is one of the reasons why so many people envy animal bliss. Well, barring the option of becoming a cow or a mouse or a chicken, I think that the challenge of free will in life offers us a great gift, and like every great gift, there’s another side to it, which is a great risk for pain.
Human beings, and without getting into the philosophical side of it, were blessed with something that cows don’t have, which is, to choose to do this or to choose not to do this.
Feder: That’s a blessing?
Jacobson: Yes. You know why? Because when you do it, and you choose to do it, it really means something. When a cow does it, a cow really had no other option. And with all due respect to cows – I hope there aren’t any listening to this show – they are basically playing out a pre-programmed script, which is beautiful. As a matter of fact, the Talmud says that if we didn’t have the laws in the Torah, we would learn modesty from cats, and we would learn ethics from other animals.
So animals have much to teach us on how to behave, but they can’t teach us one thing, which is to choose to do so.
I’ll pose this question, what would be wrong if the child remains in his parents’ home and is always provided for by the parent? As a matter of fact, the parent does everything for the child, walks for them, talks for them, like a child in its mother’s womb. It’s protected. It doesn’t have to go search for its own food or nourishment. It can’t be hurt as easily.
Birth is actually quite a difficult, traumatic transition. Now you suddenly have to look for your own food so there’s the potential for famine, illness, lack of protection. But that is what life’s gift is. It’s the gift of birth which is a gift that, to put it in Divine terms, that G-d blessed us with life, with the ability to choose, and when you choose, it’s yours, and you made a real difference.
Inherent in that, unfortunately, is also the ability to not choose, or of choosing in the opposite direction. Is it worth it? I cannot make that statement. Only G-d can tell us if it’s worth it. And obviously, by blessing us with life, He told us that it’s worth it. With all the pain, G-d is saying that no matter how painful it is for Me and for you to see tragedies like this happen, it would be more painful if I took away your free will.
Feder: Let’s bring this down to earth here. Truly, let’s make this practical. Let’s say right now you were out there in this community, in Littleton, Colorado, and there are people suffering unbearable grief. And this relates to the show we did two weeks ago about pain and suffering, the pain and suffering of innocence.
Let’s say you’re out there now. What would you be doing, what would you be saying? How would you talk to people who are responsible? Who are responsible for leading and educating their children in a professional way? What would you say to them? What would you look for out there? How would you try to influence them?
Jacobson: Well, there’s a short term and a long term, but most of this show is dedicated to the long term preventive overall perspective on education, attitudes between parents and children, but the short term can’t be neglected.
In the short term you’re dealing with an unbelievable amount of pain and if I were there, which I’d rather not be, because it’s so overwhelming, you need to do nothing more than just console and hold the hands and cry together with the people who have suffered so.
To get up now, and have an academic analysis of the problem with the people who are suffering, I don’t think would be at all appropriate. Right now you have to cry with them, share the pain, and in some way we believe that that somehow soothes and relieves someone of it. That’s the first and foremost thing if I were there.
Independent of that, if you can sit in a room with educators or with professionals there to help to just get through it, I think that this is perfect time to make a crisis call to educators both there and across the country, to talk about how you infuse some type of real deep meaning (if you’re afraid of the word spiritual, don’t use the word spiritual) in children’s lives and education in some way that is both experienced in school and spills over into the home and vice versa, and you use this as a catalyst for addressing, in very specific ways, how do we infuse our education with that element, and make this not as a short-term solution to what happened in Colorado but as an overall perspective.
That’s what I would more than encourage. I think it’s a matter of life and death. Of children’s lives and, we see here, by extension, of other people’s lives. I think we can discuss some suggestions that every parent and every educator can implement even before the entire system is overhauled.
Feder: I was just about to say that we need some specifics and now is the time. It’s a fatal disease that we seem to be struck with in this country, so what are some suggestions—first of all, generically, and then specifically—about how people should approach this.
Jacobson: It’s such a large topic that I feel anything I say is inadequate, so I just want to qualify this that I’ll comment on a few things that come to mind. Obviously, I’m not addressing now how to change the educational system. That needs some serious thought. Basically, curriculums must include… the foundation of all education has to be included in education…it cannot be left unspoken. Maybe 1000 years ago it could be left unspoken when we were in a healthier, more naïve environment. But today, the foundation of all education must be spelled out.
And that foundation is, why are we here as human beings?
Feder: And there would be a course in that.
Jacobson: Yes, a course, exactly. If you don’t want to call it G-d, don’t call it G-d. There are non-denominational, and non-religious terms that it can be identified. The idea of absolute respect for a human being. Find a word, create a new word. Don’t call it spirit, find a word that everyone finds acceptable, politically correct, because semantics is not the issue.
Speak to the heart of people and people will know what you’re talking about.
Feder: And this would be in elementary schools too?
Jacobson: I think from beginning to end everywhere. This would have to be the basis of it all. It’s not going to be easy. Because remember, the problem is often more with the parents and the teachers than it is with the students.
Remember, children are very impressionable and very receptive to truth. They are receptive to responsibility. But the teacher and educator may not be that responsible themselves, so they may not be ready to teach that which needs to be taught.
Feder: Well, obviously someone fell down on the job out there and is doing so, and we’re all guilty of this, all across the country.
Jacobson: On a more specific level, I would speak to parents. Because ultimately, schools, it’s easy to cop out and say that schools are taking care of our kids, but we see increasingly how that’s not the case, and a great case can be made for home education. But I would say this to parents: ultimately, it’s your children, it’s not the school’s children. The schools are trying to do the best job they can and they care, but it’s your children and it’s your only children.
If you’re not responsible for them, who will be? As Hillel said,
Feder: “If not now, when?”
Jacobson: Right. So I would say on a personal level, on an individual level, things can be done immediately which is, before your child goes to sleep every night, from a young age and on, you speak to them about those things. Not what’s on television, and not what we read in the newspapers, and not even about tragedies, but talk to them about why life matters, why your life matters, why my life matters, why life is sacred. In a positive way. I don’t mean, don’t kill someone. Sacred in a positive way. And ways that you can make your life sacred, from when you wake up in the morning, to how you treat others, how you treat yourself. If you treat yourself with respect it will extend to how you treat others.
Even though I don’t think it’s popular to put a ban on television, but I highly encourage, and I think it’s getting there, that parents should seriously look, even though television is a great babysitter, to look at how much violence their children are exposed to. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to blame everything on the video machines, video games… Everything starts from the spirit, it doesn’t begin with the technology out there, but the entire environment is prone to different attitudes, violent attitudes…
Feder: The violence that is on video games that I have seen, when my son and his friends play with them, is 100 times worse than what you see on television and when you go to the movies. But I see parents bringing 6-year-olds and 8-year-olds to see things that are so startling and so disgusting that’s it’s unbelievable. And I’ve done it myself when I was feeling lazy with my own kids.
Jacobson: As I’ve said, people have to look at their children’s lives as sacred and pure. And every step and every scar leaves an effect imbedded forever and ever. And it’s a matter of sensitivity that needs to be addressed. It is critical for parents to be able to make time for their children. Obviously to create an uproar in the educational system, to the people on school boards, the people who are underwriting school budgets, and to bring it to that type of level of attention.
This isn’t going to be easy, because we’re dealing here not with educational systems, we’re dealing here with the fabric of an entire society and I don’t know if responsibility is the number one priority.
Feder: This is a rhetorical question, right?
Jacobson: And since it’s not, how are we going to be compartmentalized and say that our schools will teach our children responsibility as number one, but we’re not that way. I don’t see how that’s going to fly. But we’re going to have to dedicate more such shows, and maybe that’s why we’re on the air, for events of this nature, and to be able to bring it to public attention.
I’m not naïve enough to think that suddenly you bring certain things to people’s attention, tragedies, etc. and then suddenly everything’s going to change. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.
But if one person changes, that’s something. And I think it’s our job, you and I, and anyone’s who’s listening to this, to have that personal impact. Ultimately, that’s where the battle is fought. In Washington, you’re not going to really win on a broad scale. World change happens one soul at a time, one person at a time.
Feder: You’re giving people a hard challenge here, because I’m just thinking about myself, and you’re asking people to examine their own hearts and the way they live their own lives before they can speak to their children at night. In other words, I have to know, what does life mean to me, before I can tell my children…
Jacobson: Well, actually there’s a back door. I’ll tell you what you can do. Don’t do it for yourself, do it for your child. Look at it that way. In other words, I may not change myself, but for my child, I may go ahead and pay the price. And sometimes that’s enough of an ulterior motive.
As a matter of fact, that’s not unheard of. There’s a prophet, Malachi, in the book of Tanach, in the Bible where it says, “At the end of time, the hearts of the parents will return through their children.”
So maybe that takes on different shapes. Maybe sometimes through the positive elements of our children because they inspire us to relive our youth and give ourselves a second chance, so to speak, and also in the negative, when we see children acting out in this way, it also awakens our hearts.
Feder: We would like to take a moment to thank the people who have made these shows possible, Marti and Charles Yassky, and also tonight, we want to thank Robert Klein, in honor and in memory of his sister, Judith Stenn, whose birthday is April 23, 1942, and she passed away March 30, 1989.
We have about one minute left if there’s anything you want to say or add.
Jacobson: Well, in the spirit of Robert Klein who has dedicated this show in memory of his sister who passed away, I do want to say that the Jewish faith has the firm belief, more than a belief, but the reality, that a soul never dies but lives on eternally. This is by no means a consolation for any tragedy that occurs, because the tragedy is still alive for us when someone is cut away from us, but we do believe in the eternity of the soul, and to try to make sense of a loved one being torn away from us can only begin if we use that as a catalyst for our own growth. And I don’t say this at all to console anyone, I do say that with all the pain involved, we here on this earth have to do everything possible to take the souls that are with us, our children, and look at them as souls that are traveling through the vehicle called the body in this life, and pay attention to them before you put them to sleep and when they wake up in the morning. Teach them that life is sacred and our lives are sacred and meaningful, and that they make a difference.