Worried about Affluenza?

I don’t know Ethan Couch, I don’t know his parents and I don’t know his attorney.  However, I do know that despite killing four people and injuring two others while driving drunk at the age of 16, he will not be spending any time in jail.  His attorney – and a paid psychologist – put forward the now-infamous argument that Ethan could not be held responsible for his actions because he suffers from “affluenza.”  He is incapable of making good decisions because he is a coddled, spoiled rich kid whose parents set no limits.  He suffers from “affluenza.”

Wow.  I guess parents would say anything to keep one of their children out of jail, but that is a damning admission on their part.  They have failed to meet the most minimum obligations of what parents ought to give their children.

In the Talmud, the rabbis lay out the responsibilities of parents vis-a-vis their children.  After entering them into the covenant, there are three (possibly four) obligations; “to teach them Torah, to find them spouses, and to teach them trades. Some say, also to teach them to swim (BT Kiddushin 29a).”

The word “Torah” literally means teaching.  When we say this word, we often think of the scroll in the Ark, but it means so much more than that.  A child needs to learn the rules and boundaries of society.  In Judaism, they are elucidated in the Torah, but every society has its sacred text filled with rules and expectations.  They are passed down from one generation to the next.

Our tradition is certainly focused on marriage and the creation of families.  But, I read this obligation of finding a spouse for a child to mean more than that.  Parents have to teach children how to get along with all different kinds of people in varied contexts – from intimate relationships to cursory interactions.  This is something that must be taught.

As focused as our tradition can be on the spiritual and the ritual, it is really a very practical religion.  From Pirkei Avot to Tevye, we have always understood that it is really difficult to consider matters of theology or points of law if one does not have enough food on the table.  A parent must give children the means to make a living.

Lastly, the rabbis suggest that a parent should teach children to swim.  I have always thought of swimming in this teaching as being a metaphor for the countless skills that we must learn along the way to get by in this world.  From how to fix things in a house to how to leave a tip in a restaurant.  From opening a bank account to not answering the door for a stranger.  These are little things that are really not so little.

It’s a huge responsibility.

I was thinking about this in connection with this week’s Torah portion because this week we read about Aaron and his sons being invested as the first Priests in the Tabernacle.  Nowhere in the narrative do we read about Moses’ two sons – Gershom and Eliezer.  What happened to them?  Why did Aaron’s sons follow him into the Priesthood while Moses’ sons essentially disappeared?  Did it have anything to do with their parenting styles?  I don’t know the answer to those questions, just as I don’t know what will happen to poor Ethan Couch who will have to live with what he has done.

Parenting is incredibly challenging in today’s world, but fortunately parents don’t have to do it all alone.  We can draw on the wisdom of our tradition.  We can share experiences with one another.  We can turn to those who have gone before us – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and neighbors – to help us find the way.  And then perhaps, we can inoculate our children against “affluenza” and other avoidable maladies.



About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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One Response to Worried about Affluenza?

  1. “A child needs to learn the rules and boundaries of society. In Judaism, they are elucidated in the Torah, but every society has its sacred text filled with rules and expectations. They are passed down from one generation to the next…”

    But how does one “teach”? That’s the one factor you didn’t touch on in this essay.
    For many non-teachers (and I suppose for teachers also) teaching is equivalent to talking or preaching. But we know very little of that kind of teaching makes much behavioral difference. What the Talmud may have had in mind is teaching by example. How one lives, not what one says, is the strongest message that parents can give children.

    I wonder how the parents of Ethan live.

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