A parent turns to her teenaged son and asks, "What's bothering you?" "Whatever," answers the kid with a disconsolate shrug.

A husband enquires of his wife, "Did I do something to upset you? Is something wrong?" Her disappointed face grimaces, "Whatever…"

A father questions his daughter, "Have you finished your homework? Did you study for your test?" The daughter turns up the volume on her head-phones and mutters, "Whatever."

Overheard in conversation: What should we do about the terrorism? About the starving children in Africa? About global warming? "Whatever."

To me, nothing captures the spirit of the times like this ubiquitous whateverness. We are a Whatever Generation who lives by the motto of "live and let live"; our first commandment is "Thou shalt be open-minded to other people's morals," or, alternatively, their desire to be lacking in morals. Our openness is lauded as tolerance, but to me it smells more like apathy.

I've noticed that when I ask my children what they want for dinner, I'll never hear "Whatever"; I'll be very specifically informed which foods they like and dislike, and how they prefer it to be cooked. But as soon as something beyond our most immediate needs is at stake, it becomes too much of an exertion to express a passionate stand, to formulate a well-reasoned opinion, or to intervene with practical assistance. So we suffice with "Whatever."

The whatever mindset has seeped into every facet of our society—into politics, into our schools, the workplace, our relationships, even how we dress. Youngsters and adults wear frayed cuffs, torn jeans, underclothing peeking out or pants almost falling off. Anything that screams "Whatever" (ironically, we'll spend many hours and dollars to achieve this look of casual indifference.)

"Whatever" means I don't really think that you sincerely care. Even if you are concerned enough to ask, I don't think that you'll put forth the necessary effort to change the situation or help me improve my circumstances. So, let's be honest: if you don't really care about this and I certainly don't, then why are we even bothering to discuss it?

So the teenager sulks silently and explores all kinds of harmful pursuits in order to forget his misery. The couple joins 50% of the married population in divorce court because they couldn't be burdened with the extensive effort necessary to work through their conflicts. And our children continue to feel that their education is irrelevant.

I'm not sure how this whateverness became so ingrained in our society. Perhaps it began as true tolerance for the practices of others. Maybe the media bombardment of atrocities and calamities—natural or man-caused—created within us this defense mechanism to counteract feelings of absolute helplessness in the face of so much tragedy. Or maybe it happened with the fast-paced speed of technological advancement: with the whole world our village, we sense ourselves to be insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Regardless of its causes, this caustic apathy needs to be counteracted from the roots upward, beginning with the earliest and most formative years of our children's lives.

We must impart two basic values to our children, values that Judaism has been espousing from time immemorial:

The Torah teaches us that when G‑d created the first human being, Adam, He created him as a single individual (unlike every other plant or animal species). The reason, explain our sages, is that G‑d wished to teach us, for all perpetuity, the importance of every human being; that every person is indeed an entire world.

On the other hand, mankind was created last of all creations, on the sixth day of creation. Our sages explain that this was to teach us responsibility to our world. If a human being acts with morals and ideals, acknowledging his responsibility for the rest of creation, he is higher than all creatures. If, however, man shuns his responsibility, he has sunk lower than even the smallest insect crawling on the earth.

Our challenge is to inculcate our children with these essential, foundational beliefs:

  • You matter. You are important. You are a being with infinite potential. You are a whole world, and you can make an impact. Respect yourself. Respect who you can be. And act in accordance.

  • As great as you are, your greatness is only reflected in realizing that there are things greater than you that are worth sacrificing for: values and morals, community and family. Your personal happiness is not an end to itself, but you must feel a sense of responsibility for your world.

These simple but fundamental values are what distinguish us as human beings. They are essential for us to believe and for our children to trust.

Because there is just too much at stake for us to abandon our children to the cruelties of an irreverent and irrelevant whatever world.