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The Wisdom of Jewish Adulthood

04/06/2015 08:23:00 AM


The Wisdom of Jewish Adulthood
Rosh Hashana 2004 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Dear Mr. Feinstein,

Let me be the first to welcome you to the wonderful world of AARP. Attached you will find your provisional membership card. Fill out the membership application, send in your membership fees, and the world of AARP benefits will be yours.

And so begins my middle age.

American culture, it seems, marks the arrival of critical life transitions with official letters like this one. Adolescence began with the rabbi's letter of congratulations on the occasion of my Bar Mitzvah. Adulthood began with a letter of acceptance to the University of California. (And a stern letter from the Selective Service Administration.) And now mid-life arrives with greetings from AARP. I imagine that death comes the same way, in a letter from Mt Sinai Memorial Park.

So I start to fill out the form. After all, who can resist the offer of discounted early-bird dinners at Denny's and IHOP. I do so with a creeping sense of depression. Mine, after all, was a generation warned never to trust anyone over 30! Teenage, college, marriage, children all arrived with a sense of excitement and anticipation. Not the dread that I'm feeling. Why do I feel so unprepared for this stage of life?. Where do we learn how to grow older?

There is a strain of popular American culture that identifies growing older with personal diminishment and decline. American life is lived in the future tense; tomorrow is always superior to yesterday. Everything that's good in America is new and improved. And youth means the new: new energy, new creativity, new perspectives. Think of all that's sold to us with the promise of making us look younger and feel younger. Younger is better. Ever see anything that offered to make you look older in just minutes a day? (Yes, children.)

What does it mean to grow older in America? AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons. Retirement is a form of disengagement. To retire is to give up, to surrender. One retires when one is exhausted, used up. No matter how cheery and bright and clever those ads for Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis, we can read the subtext: At this age you can't do what once came so naturally. Not without strong medicinal intervention.

There is the strain of American culture that defines the task of midlife as resigning oneself and adjusting to one's new diminished circumstances: Learn to act your age. We scorn or poke fun or pity the man with the midlife crisis, driven to acquire the new red sports car, the new hair piece, the new earring, or the girlfriend half his age. This is Kevin Spacey's character in the film American Beauty --quitting his job and devoting all his waking hours to seducing his teenage daughter's cheerleading partner -- obsessed with this young woman as if she were the font of all the vitality and purpose missing in his life.

"Hope I die before I get old!" sang Roger Daltry of the Who, in the 60's rock epic, "My Generation." And he was prophetic: A generation that dreads growing older, that resents growing older, a generation that sees no possibilities in growing older, is a generation with no future, a generation that is spiritually dead.

"Rabbi, how do I find some balance between my work and my family? Between the endless demands of my office and my place at home? And in the midst of all this, am I allowed any time for myself?"

I hear many questions as a rabbi. These have become by far the most frequent and the most urgent questions I hear.

They come from men who seem to have it all: at least on the surface: the loving wife, the energetic kids, the beautiful house, the career success and recognition they dreamed of. One fellow said, "I have a the life to die for, Rabbi. . .and that's exactly what I feel like I'm doing." How do you deal with the sense of always juggling? The feeling of being split into so many pieces? What do you do with that little voice inside which keeps mocking, Is that all there is? Is that all there is?

They comes from women who waited to get married until they saw signs of success in their careers. Then decided to take off a few years for childbearing and child-raising. So now that the kids are comfortable in school, the home and help are stable, she re-enters the working world. Smart enough to get past the ambitious single 20-somethings who are willing to work 120 hours a week, and the boss who needs to learn that Friday nights and Saturdays are family-time not overtimeŠshe makes a startling discovery: It's not fun anymore. The life she's living isn't the one she'd planned. Or at least it doesn't feel as rewarding as it was supposed to.

And from women who waited to get married until they saw signs of success in their careers. Then decided to take off a few years for childbearing and child-raising. So now that the kids are comfortable in school, the home and help are stable, she re-enters the working world. Smart enough to get past the ambitious single 20-somethings who are willing to work 120 hours a week, and the boss who needs to learn that Friday nights and Saturdays are family-time not overtime. . .she makes a startling discovery: It's not fun anymore. The life she's living isn't the one she'd planned. Or at least it doesn't feel as rewarding as it was supposed to.

Please open your supplement to page 15. This is a teaching, from Pirke Avot, the Wisdom of the Sages, the 2nd century collection of the wisdom the ancient rabbis.

At age 5, one studies Bible. 
At ten, the Mishna. 
At thirteen, one is responsible for the mitzvoth. 
At fifteen, one studies Talmud. 
At eighteen, one is ready for marriage. 
At twenty, one begins a career. 
At thirty, one is at the height of one's powers. 
At forty, one achieves understanding [bina]. 
At fifty, one is prepared to give wise counsel [aitzah]. 
At sixty, one is given the deference of seniority. 
At seventy, one is considered a sage. 
Eighty is the age of heroic strength.

The American veneration of youth is rooted in an ancient Greek ideal of the body as the locus of value. The beauty of the body reflects the beauty of the soul. The This is the philosophical source of the Olympic games with all their glory are rooted in this idea.. The body's exquisite form and capabilities reveal the beauty of humanity. But the body's grace and form are fleeting. As the body passes its prime, as its beauty fades and its capacity diminishes, human life loses its value. Time is our enemy. As we age, we are diminished. Growing older means giving up the qualities that make us beautiful and worthy. As we age, we are diminished. This is the tragedy of the human condition. Time is our enemy. The great heroes of Greek myth defeated time and earned their immortality by fighting their battles gloriously and dying young, forever fixed in memory and eternity as youth.

In the Talmud text, life is not a tragedydrama of decline. It is not a tragedy. Each stage of life has its own beauty, its own value, its own measure of success.

In the Talmud, growing older is not about the surrendering the qualities that make us vital and beautiful. In each age of life, we gain something. Each stage of life brings new qualities. If you read carefully, you will realize that these qualities are the qualities we associate with God: learning, love, creativity, wisdom, power. At each successive stage of life, we gain an opportunity to appropriate aspects of divinity. As we grow older, the Talmud teaches, we gain the capacity to grow Godly.

At age 5, one studies Bible. 
At ten, the Mishna. 
At thirteen, one is responsible for the mitzvoth.

In Judaism, we meet God in a book, in the Torah. Literacy is requisite for spirituality and full humanity. Therefore, no activity is more valued than learning, and no place more important than school. For in school we gain the literacy ­ the powerneeded to share life with God. A child's first day of school was marked with ceremony and celebration: The child was met at home by the elders of the community, then carried to the schoolhouse aslike a hero. There, he was presented with a slate on which the letters of the alphabet were written in honey. As each letter was mastered, the child could lick off the letter and taste the sweetness of learning.

Childhood is defined by the Talmudic tradition in terms of the steps toward literacy, with its culmination at age 13, when the youngster is invited to become a member of the spiritual community, by accepting the obligations of mitzvot, of holy living.

At thirteen, one is responsible for the mitzvot. At 18, one is ready for marriage.

American culture is a celebration of individualism. We measure human development in terms of the person's ability to think for himself, do for himself, fend for himself. Self-reliance is the source of dignity.Dignity in American is conferred on the one who is self-sufficient and self-reliant. The American rite of passage into adulthood is the glorious day when we obtain a drivers' license. Because driving in America isn't just about getting around. Driving means independence and freedom. These are America's most sacred values. In the American mind, each of us is a free, sovereign, choosing self, unencumbered by bonds or claims except those freely chosen to meet our interests. Think of all our cultural icons who are loners: James Bond, Dirty Harry, Superman, the aptly named Han Solo, Kobe Bryant. Even in team sports, we exalt the individual performer. That was the drama of the American basketball team in the summer's Olympics ­ a team of outstanding individual players facing in a tournament of outstanding team players.

Waiting in line at the DMV, I once took my son to the DMV last week, and as I was waiting, I watched an elderly gentleman attempting to renew his license. He failed the first test of depth perception, so they moved to another window and allowed him to take it again. This one too he failed. He became very emotional and began to beg the clerk to overlook the test results and give him the license renewal. To take away his license is to take away his adulthood, his dignity, because in American culture to be dependent on others is infantilizing and shameful.

"In nature," writes the biologist Lewis Thomas, "there is no such thing as 'an ant.'" Ants come in colonies and communities, but never alone. This is also the Jewish conception of the human being. In Genesis, God regrets creating the human being alone and single: "Lo tov heyot adam levado, The human being is not meant to be alone." The isolated life, the alienated life, the lonely life is not fully human, not fully developed. To live apart from community, to live without friends, without mentors, without love, is not to live at all. In Rabbi Schulweis's phrase, "who you are, is tied up with whose you are."

The Jewish mind cannot conceive of human existence apart from the bonds of family, community and people. Jewish culture understands human development not in terms of independence and sovereign autonomy, but in the deepening of the claims upon us -- claims that bind us into family and community. The genius of the Bar Mitzvah rite is precisely that it doesn't offer the kid more privileges, more freedom. Not matter how much they want it. Bar/Bat Mitzvah interprets adulthood as the experience of belonging: being responsible to the community, being accountable to the community, feeling claimed by the community. That's the dignity of Jewish adulthood. You count as an adult when you can be counted on.

As one grows older and more mature, the claims deepen: adulthood is found in friendships, in intimacy, in love and in marriage, in accepting teachers and mentors, in rooting oneself in a community and ultimately in parenting and mentoring others. The more we are claimed, the more human we become.

At twenty, one begins a career. 
At thirty, one is at the height of one's powers.

Once asked what a normal, healthy person ought to be able to do, Sigmund Freud is reported to have answered curtly, "To love and to work."

In early adulthood, we define ourselves by the work we do and the rewards we earn. At this moment in life, in early adulthood, work is more than an economic necessity, a means of support. Work is an expression of self. Work is testimony of our capacity to affect the world.

In the Book of Exodus, we are commanded: Sheshet yamim ta'avod, va'aseetah kol melachtecha. V'yom ha-shvee'ee shabat l'adonai elohecha. Six days you will work, and accomplish all your creative tasks. The seventh day is God's Shabbat. It is a religious imperative to keep the Sabbath. But it is also a religious imperative to work. And just as there is holiness in Sabbath, there is a holiness in work. There are two words for "work" in this verse: Avodah and Melacha. Avodah, means work, but it also means worship. Work is a form of worship -- a response to God's gift of life. Melacha, is the Bible's term for God's creative tasks in forming the world. Working means sharing God's struggle to complete the unfinished job of Creation. At this moment in the life story, creative work is a need of the growing human being.

At forty, one achieves (bina) understanding, at fifty, one is prepared to give (aitzah) wise counsel, at sixty, one is given the deference of seniority (zikna), at seventy, one is considered a sage (sayva).

From age 5 to age 20, we learn from books. 
From 20 to 40, we learn from the world. 
At 40, we finally understand.

In the Talmud, the development of the human being doesn't stop with the end of childhood. Grown ups are meant to keep on growing. 40, 50, 60, 70 -- each decade brings its own qualities. We're not finished once we become adults. The object of childhood is literacy. The object of our 20's is intimacy. The object of our 30's is achievement. The objects of later adulthood ­ our 40's and 50's and beyond, are of a different order: bina, aitza, zikna, sayva, understanding, counsel, seniority and wisdom, are qualities of inner person, qualitiestraits of the soul.

The Talmud derives this from a verse in the 29th chapter of Deuteronomy. Moses has brought the Israelites to the end of the long journey home. Preparing them for the next stage, for their entry into the land as a free people he discloses: 
"Until today, God had not given you the heart to understand, the eyes to see and the ears to listen." It takes a journey of 40 years to come from Egyptian slavery to the freedom of the Promised Land. It takes a journey of 40 years to finally leave behind the Egypt of the heart ­ the slavery to ego and to fear, slavery of the imagination and the will ­ and arrive at the freedom to see and to hear and to understand life.

What counts as success at 25 isn't the same as what counts as success at 45. According to the story in Genesis, as a young man, Joseph dreamed that his father and mother and brothers would all bow themselves down before him. He dreamed that the stars and the moon and all the planets would circle him in adoration. By 40, he had achieved in the world all that he had dreamt. The grand ruler of all Egypt, master of all its wealth, all the world came and bowed before him. But it wasn't enough for him. That's not what he wanted any more. In one of the Torah's most moving scenes, Joseph's brothers arrive in Egypt and appear before him ­ the same brothers who tried to kill him twenty year earlier. He has this choice: to ignore them, to dismiss them, to incarcerate and torture and exact his revenge upon them. Instead, he opens himself to them. They bow down to him, but he raises them up and cries out, "Ani Yosef achicha. I am Joseph your brother!" He needs them. He needs connection with them. And he knows it.

In Jewish tradition, the age of 13 is the beginning of adulthood. But the age of 40 is the beginning of spiritual maturity. At 40, I finally understood what the rabbi said at my Bar Mitzvah. Self-sufficiency is not the goal of life. To be fully self-possessed is not the ultimate source of human dignity. Connection is what matters.

What is bina? What do we understand at 40?

That it's not about me anymore. 
It does not compromise my dignity to recognizing that I need help, that I need others, that I can't live without others. And that recognition arrives with such a relief. (You know the joke: Why did it take 40 years to cross the desert? Because Moses wouldn't stop and ask for directions. )

What do we understand at 40? 
That my own importance is measured, not by the world that bows down to me, but by the larger purposes I serve. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: "Modern man ponders: 'What will I get out of life?' What escapes his attention is the fundamental yet forgotten question: 'What will life get out of me?'"

The glory of a human life is to be needed. Heschel teaches that at the end of the spiritual search, we do not arrive at a God who validates us with unconditional love. At the end of the spiritual search is a God who needs us. The first words that God spoke to human beings, according to the Torah, formed a question: Where are you? "Religion," Heschel writes, "begins with a consciousness that something is asked of us." It is in a sense of indebtedness--knowing that I'm needed, that God seeks me as a partner--that I locate my sense of significance, my purpose in life.

When you doubt the existence of God, wrote the first Lubavitcher rebbe, Shneur Zalman, when you find the universe dark and cold and empty of meaning, go and heal the sick, go and feed the hungry, go and lift the fallen, and you will feel in your own hands the presence of God, the reality of God and the meaning of existence.

And what of 50 and beyond? What is aitzah, zikna and sayva? It means becoming an elder who earns eternity by teaching, by mentoring, by leading. Putting your name on an office tower will not earn you immortality. But planting your wisdom in the soul of a child will. Because when it comes to anything of real value in life, you can't keep what you don't give away.

When he met God at the Burning Bush, Moses was beginning midlife. Commanded by God to return to Egypt and liberate his people, Moses complained, "I am a man of no words!" By the journey's end forty years later, something had changed. Deuteronomy, the Torah's last book begins: "These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the banks of the Jordan." And he goes on speaking for 34 chapters. Moses found his words. And more: He would not bring his people into the Promised Land. So he would bring his words into the hearts of his people.

The psychologist Erik Erikson called this generativity: locating one's value in mentoring, guiding and teaching the next generation. Those who fail at this, he argued, those unable to share their personal resources, will inevitably turn inward, and treat themselves as their own spoiled child. This is the tragedy we call midlife crisis, a soul occluded, a clogged soul.

Midlife is not an easy transition. Especially in a culture that identifies youth with everything of value in life. Midlife is not an easy transition. It takes a rare courage to grasp that you are the author of your life story and you are responsible for how it ends. It takes a rare courage to re-author one's life, to change one's idea of success, to dream up a new ending for life's drama. Where do we get this courage? For that matter, where in our culture can we ask the questions of midlife without being dismissed, or mocked?

I'm always embarrassed at these parties for birthdays with zero's, with their gag gifts and the bad jokes, and the underlying fear of facing our advancing years. Instead, every ten years or so, let us grant ourselves the gift of a joyful moment, but a serious moment, a reflective moment, to declare who we are, where we've come in life, what we stand for, and to celebrate those who lovingly stand with us.

Look again at the Talmud. At five, we begin learning Bible. And there is a personal ritual, a celebration that initiates the child's transition from home to school.

At 13, we are responsible for the mitzvoth. And there is a personal ritual, a symbolic bridge for crossing from childhood into adolescence. This text is, in fact, the source of all our Bar and Bat Mitzvah rituals. More than just the ritual, the tradition provided for an elaborate process of learning surrounding the ritual, so that the young person is mentored and guided into the new stage of life.

"At 18, one is ready for marriage" again, a personal ritual, with an elaborate preparation, sees the bride and groom into their new lives.

But then the tradition stopped. The Talmud recognizes later stages of life, but offers noNo more personal rituals. All the rituals now belong to our children: their birth, growth and marriage.

Where is the ritual to accompany each of the other moments of life transition, at 30, 40, 50 and so on? And more than the ritual, where is the process of learning and reflecting, that might enable us to meet these moments of transition with wisdom and with grace? Instead of dreading the arrival of birthdays with zero's, couldn'twhy don't we prepare for them?

If our kids can spend six months with teachers and rabbis learning Torah and preparing to become Jewish adults as Bar and Bat Mitzvah, why can't we have the same privilege -- preparation, reflection, learning and mentoring at each of the moments of life transition?

Six months or so of learning the insights of an ancient tradition that respects adulthood as a time of creativity and growth. A guided process of reflecting on the progress of our lives -- to recognize who has been important to us, to discover what truly drives us, to confront the fears that keep us stuck and to recall the dreams yet unfulfilled. The time to envision new life scenarios, to forge a new vision of our life purposes and a new definition of personal success.

And at the end, we fashion some personal ritual for sharing and celebrating this moment life transition with those we love.

We already have a wonderful program at VBS for adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah is about gaining Jewish literacy and mastery of the synagogue tradition.

This is something different. This is about gaining wisdom to cope with a life that is changing. This is Bnai Hochmah. An opportunity for those who seek the wisdom of adulthood from the sources of Jewish tradition, will begin this Fall at Valley Beth Shalom. It is open to anyone, and especially those facing life transitions, birthdays with zero's, and the sense that there must be more to growing older than AARP.

Eighty is the age of heroic strength. 
Everyone of us bears a deep need to be heroic. Not celebrated, not famous, but heroic ­ certain that our lives, our struggles and our trials, represent deep, eternal values.

Judaism is a way to live a heroic life, a life of ultimate importance.

The Hasidic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, shut himself into his personal study for 19 years. After 19 years of isolation and silence, he emerged one morning in the Beit Midrash, the community's academy, filled with scholars and students. 
"What are you doing?" he asked the astonished Hasidim. 
"We are learning, Rebbe, learning Torah," they answered. 
"No, no," responded the Rebbe, "don't just learn Torah, Be Torah!" 
Don't just learn Torah, be Torah. Make your whole life into a holy book. You are the author of your life. So create it as if it were a sacred story. Turn your whole life into a text that others can read and learn from.

That's what Judaism is designed to do. And that's what our synagogue is dedicated to do.

Abraham Heschel once asked why it was that we are commanded to make no images of God, when God himself contradicts the commandment and makes human beings in his image? And Heschel answered: it isn't that God hasn't an image. God has an image. And there is only one material on earth from which one can fashion that image: the entirety of a human life. Not stone and not steel. But from the entirety of a human life can we fashion an image of God. And this is our mitzvah. May we live to be worthy of it.

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Fri, December 9 2022 15 Kislev 5783