This post was originally published on my page of the blog for Rabbis Without Borders on myjewishlearning.com:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/2014/02/09/affluenza-really/

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This week’s stunning headline read “Affluenza Defense Lands Wealthy Teen in Rehab After He Kills 4 People in Drunk Driving Accident.”

The term “affluenza,” popularized in a 2001 a book,Affluenza, the All Consuming Epidemic (de Graff, Wann, and Naylor) is described as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

The headline for the “Affluenza defense” told a horrific story. It was the defense strategy for 16 year-old Ethan Couch, who killed four people and severely injured two more while driving his father’s pickup truck with more than three times the legal limit for alcohol in his blood, along with valium. Driving 70 miles an hour in a 40 MPH zone, the teen was behind the wheel after stealing beer from a store, then taking 7 passengers with him on a drunken ride. Despite the stolen beer, the speeding, the underage drinking, etc.—a long list of offenses—the teen was sentenced to just 10 years of probation and mandatory rehabilitation. The rehab ordered by the judge will cost $450,000 a year, in what seems more a punishment of his parents than a consequence for their killer child.

News outlets reported that a “psychologist hired as an expert by the defense testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege.” An anguished man who lost his wife and daughter in the crash observed that Couch’s family’s money was able to pay for the expensive legal defense, and cover the rehab costs—and had this not been the case, the outcome surely would have been different.

They should be ashamed of themselves, all of them—everyone who defended this remorseless teenager—for defending his actions. This defense was a way of saying that he bears no blame. In fact, his facial expressions and body language all bore out an arrogant “you can’t touch me” detachment.

Should the parents be punished for raising a child with such a sense of entitlement, lacking boundaries and lessons about consequences – essentially without morals?  Maybe. If only the psychologist had tried to determine the causes for this kid’s malevolent self-absorption, perhaps the parents would bear some guilt. We know that parents can’t control the outcomes of their parenting, and some who try to do their best end up disappointed. Yet, this case does cry out for examination of the parents’ role in producing this outcome.

Shouldn’t this be an opportunity to raise a cultural conversation about parenting with boundaries and consequences—teaching our kids to have a moral compass?

Even more so, the consequences for the teen should have made a different point. If this is a child who was not taught to live with boundaries and consequences, then the court did the worst possible thing by repeating that very same pattern. Ideally, he should be taught that there are painful—and sometimes disastrous—consequences of bad judgment. Perhaps he won’t learn morality at this point, but we have a responsibility to try. And if nothing more, society should make sure he can’t hurt anyone else again.

How about a lifetime ban on his obtaining a driver’s license or purchasing or leasing any motor vehicle?

We owe it to the victims and to all of our children, to do better than this.

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Late yesterday afternoon as I sat in my living room quietly reading, I looked outside at the clear blue sky, happy for the autumn sunshine. But my thoughts turned to the Monday afternoon one year ago when we stayed home as Hurricane Sandy bore down on our area. Recalling the ordeal of downed trees and no electricity or phones in our house for the next two weeks, I was grateful for the help of friends and community.

hurricane sandy tree on house 2012

I remembered that we were inconvenienced, but not devastated. Just up the street from us two houses were crushed by fallen trees, as were others in surrounding neighborhoods, but our area was still largely intact. Coastal and shore areas in New Jersey and New York were not so lucky. Many of us have helped to clean up and rebuild after the destruction of homes, businesses, and some entire communities along the shore.  I wish I had been able to do more.

After the surge of memories began yesterday, I was struck by the under-mentioned impact of the hurricane on the poor.  Those with means could recover – many people left town to the comfort of unaffected areas. The privileged had insurance to cover losses, or the capacity to absorb the costs of repair. Yet the brunt of the suffering was borne by the elderly and infirmed and disabled, and those who didn’t have the insurance or the means to repair or rebuild.

Sandy was one more reminder that the divide between the rich and the poor in America is growing.  So too is the callousness of too many politicians who seem intent on enriching those already privileged while cutting off so many who can’t pay lobbyists or make huge campaign contributions.

Today, on this anniversary of the New York/New Jersey regions’ calamitous hurricane, I want to offer thanks for one politician who seems to be getting it right. As reported on the front page of the NY Times,Ohio Governor Defies G.O.P. With Defense of Social Safety Net”, Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio is defying the right wing in his state by finding ways to protect the poor. The article reports that “Few have gone further than Mr. Kasich in critiquing his party’s views on poverty programs, and last week he circumvented his own Republican legislature and its Tea Party wing by using a little-known state board to expand Medicaid to 275,000 poor Ohioans under President Obama’s health care law.”  Kasich said,  “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor,” he said, sitting at the head of a burnished table as members of his cabinet lingered after a meeting. “That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”

Righteousness is alive and well.  The neighbor-to-neighbor help after the storm, wonderful as it was, may not have been sufficient to relieve the suffering of the neediest for the long-term. But compassion can prevail and guide our society, if we demand it of our leaders and ourselves. In honor of those who have worked so hard to create a more just democracy, I pray that this compassion will spread, from governor to governor, from mayor to mayor, from community to community.