Talking to Teenagers about Sex, Drugs, Alcohol -- and Faith

03/23/2011 09:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I am a 63-year-old rabbi. The most difficult task that I have as leader of a national religious organization is talking to teenagers. For me at least, the cultural and generational gaps are intimidating. What follows are excerpts from my most recent effort, a sermon to 700 teenage leaders.

I know it is not easy to be a teenager.

The high school years are in some ways the worst period of your life -- the most awkward, uncomfortable and embarrassing of all times, and in many ways, the most fruitless. It is astonishing how little they teach you in high school, or at least, how little you absorb of what they are trying to teach.

College is set up to let you be creative, but high school is not. From what I can see, the system is designed to prevent challenging ideas from ever reaching a student.

Add to that the fact that you get zits and hormones when you're a teenager. And the fact that if you are a teenager who wants to be daring and creative, we adults don't make it easy, because most of us, by the time we are 40, are as set in our ways as train tracks.

And add to all that the fact that we live in a crazy world.

Times are hard, and many people are out of work. Our country is sliding deeper into debt, piling up obligations that your generation will have to pay. We pay absurd salaries to celebrities who aren't exactly role models of how we should live our lives. And we over-consume our natural resources. All in all, America is a less hopeful place than it once was.

You must deal with the crises of our day, and, at the same time, deal with difficult matters in your personal lives -- especially the issues of sex, alcohol and drugs. These are conventional temptations, of course, that teens have faced since the beginning of time. But today's cultural climate makes these decisions even harder for you than they have been before. My advice can be summarized in three general rules.

The general rule with sex is that it's a good thing. Freud was right: it is the motor that makes the world run. People who like sex are happier and less violent; they don't go to war because they would rather stay home under the covers.

The general rule with drugs is that they are always bad.

The general rule with alcohol is that moderation is the key.

But my broader point is that you are not yet adults, and each of these temptations could potentially be a killer, emotionally and physically. You will benefit from finding a standard outside of your own feelings before you decide to indulge. And the place to start is with your parents, your rabbis, your youth groups -- and the teachings of Judaism.

And the best way to approach these decision is with emunah -- faith. Faith in Judaism and faith in God.

These are difficult and complicated subjects, but there are certain basics you should keep in mind.

Every time you protest hatred, you show your faith and prove the presence of God. Every time you help the poor and defend the stranger, you show your faith and prove the presence of God. And every time you sit at a Passover seder, light Shabbat candles or join in prayer in the synagogue, you show your faith and prove the presence of God.

And finally: As you work to keep the world sane and to be a Jew with faith, it is important to enjoy yourselves as you go. After all, God tells you that you are an infinitely precious person. And nothing matches the sensation of discovering your own power to advance justice and fix the world.

And this above all: There is much consolation to be found in the knowledge that you are not alone; that ours is a community of friends and family, of camps and youth groups, of rabbis, cantors and youth advisors. And God, the Jewish people, and the Jewish tradition are with us always.