As high school student Hannah Baker careens spiritedly down a playground slide, her skirt flies in the air. Her crush Justin Foley snaps a quick pic on his phone. That next day he shows it off to his rowdy buddies, and they grab his phone and post the photo on Snapchat. Life as she knew it is over for Hannah Baker.
There is name-calling, bullying, rape, alcohol, drugs, and beatings. And then there is suicide. Welcome to the terrifying underbelly of teen life, a world that captures our attention intermittently with shocking headlines and national town hall meetings. This year it is the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why that demands a response.
The stunning series, based on the novel by Jay Asher, consists of 13 episodes about Hannah, who records and leaves 13 cassette tapes directed at 13 people. Each explains one of the 13 reasons why she resolved to take her own life. The series has scenes I wish I had never witnessed. They are sexually explicit, violent, and bloody, rife with inappropriate language and the thoughtlessly cruel use of social media.
Of utmost concern is the suicide of a beautiful, bright young girl and the shocking reality that in the world portrayed, adults are largely irrelevant. Their efforts to help, whether as parents or educators, are mostly ineffective, offered awkwardly and experienced as intrusive and ultimately rebuffed. What are we to do? Though the show is fiction, these are our kids and our future.
I believe we have an antidote: 13 Reasons Why. Our traditions, expressed at times as the total number of commandments, lay out aspirational reasons “why” — that is, why live. They counter meanness with meaningfulness.
The 18th-century Talmudist Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin writes in the introduction to his work Nefesh HaChaim that “the ultimate purpose of humans in this world is to better other people’s lives in every way possible.” This succinct and unequivocal pronouncement from an intellectual giant, whose fame in the world of Torah scholarship emanates from the analytical and not the realm of the touchy-feely, is powerful.
How do we inscribe this lesson onto the hearts of our children knowing that teenage years are when the norm is teasing, cruelty, and roughhousing?
We must commit to being role models of kindness and compassion for our children 24/7. Gossiping at the dinner table: done. Being short with the checkout person: over. Speaking badly about teachers, rabbis, and leaders: finished. Persistent distraction with our digital devices: no more. We must commit to patiently helping our children work through their relationship challenges with authentic listening.
An effective tool is Mussar, Jewish spiritual development, which we can use to refine our inner life. In his accessible book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, Alan Morinis helps readers improve quality of life by learning how to give people the benefit of the doubt, being generous in spirit, and considering the burdens carried by others as they walk through life.
Let us create a community that is less 13 Reasons Why, and more 613 Reasons Why.