Sometimes lines from our tradition can ruffle feathers a bit. That happened to me this week when I turned sixty and decided to see what […]
Sometimes lines from our tradition can ruffle feathers a bit.
That happened to me this week when I turned sixty and decided to see what traits and qualities our tradition associates with this milestone. In Pirkei Avot, we learn that thirty is the age of koach/strength; that felt right. Forty is the age of bina/insight; that too felt right. A decade ago when I turned fifty, the verse in Pirkei Avot said it was the age for aitza/counsel. Again, it felt accurate. And what did it say for shishim/sixty, the age I just turned?
Ben shishim l’ziknah. What is ziknah? It is translated in the Lev Shalem as old age.
What? How did that happen? I don’t feel like I should be in the category of old age. Okay, my hair is grey and thinning, sometimes my back hurts, my routine of taking medicine to stay healthy takes more time than it used to, and technology is truly baffling. But, old age? Really?
I whined about this to friend, who is also a rabbi, and he said, “Nat, you are doing what you always tell your congregants not to do. You are translating in a narrow, negative way. We both know that ziknah is not old age in a physical, run down sense. Ziknah is to be an elder, sharing wisdom and having perspective.” It is actually good to be an elder. As I thought, I realized it is a good thing to think about becoming an elder, no matter what your age. In his book From Age-ing to Sage-ing, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi brings the definition of elder from Barry Barkan, a gerontologist: “An elder is a person who is still growing, still a learner, still with potential and whose life continues to have within it promise for, and connection to, the future. An elder is still in pursuit of happiness, joy and pleasure and her or his birthright to these remains intact. Moreover, an elder is a person who deserves respect and honor and whose work it is to synthesize wisdom from long life experience and formulate this into a legacy for future generations.” Ben Shishim l’zikna/I am an elder, and that is a good thing!
I am privileged to have elders in my life who have taught through their examples that being an elder means living with a purpose, vibrance and passion. And for those of you younger than me, begin to think about what the wisdom about aging asks of you, to reflect on what wisdom you embrace and how you share it. As I approach this moment, I reflect on the values I believe in and attaining them in new and different ways. I think about wisdom I may have overlooked, and approach anew the obstacles over which I have stumbled. I double down on compassion. This is an exciting time for discovery, curiosity and spirit and joy.
This morning I would like to look at the portion Korach, which in fact was my Bar Mitzvah portion forty-seven years ago, and let some of its lessons guide me for at least the next year, during which I hope to reflect again on the moment in which I find myself. Rabbi Ilana gave an interesting interpretation of the Korach story. For her, Korach is the person who is unsatisfied as he compares himself to others. Even though he is from a family of esteem and privilege, the tribe of Levi which has power and special responsibilities, Korach cannot stand it that his cousins, Moses and Aaron, have the ultimate positions of leadership. Korach resents that Aaron, as High Priest, and Moses, as the leader of the people, have more status than he does. He whips us followers from his tribe to support his resentments. Listen to his words: “All of the community is holy, and within them is G-d. So why do you elevate yourselves above of the community?” In other words, what makes you so great? This is a very human trait. We compare ourselves to others, value ourselves based upon that comparison, and seek to tear down those have what we want, unaware that it will never be enough. Rabbi Ilana’s message was that we all have a little bit of Korach inside of us and giving in to that trait is a sure way to ensure you will never be happy, because there’s always someone better than you.
Studying Torah lifts the veil on our own behavior. Moses replies: “Rav lachem bnei levi.”/“You have so much, sons of Levi!” Is it not enough that G-d has chosen you from amongst twelve tribes? Must you set your eyes on the handful of individuals who have more status than you do? When we live in constant comparison to others, it will never be enough.
As Rabbi Ilana gave her sermon, I thought of the times in my life where I found myself comparing myself to others rather than truly valuing my own unique and precious qualities. Her message hit home. She shared that before becoming a rabbi, she trained as a scientist at Harvard and at MIT, pretty prestigious universities, and that everyone kept score by publications, how many and how prestigious the journal in which they were published. She confessed to being driven to be published in one of the journals and was honest and self-aware enough to share the envy she felt towards friends and even mentors who had already achieved inclusion in those publications. And then she shared a story about a professor who taught that those who judge themselves by other’s successes will never be happy; no matter what you achieved, you would always need more because you were judging yourself by others. We all have a bit of Korach inside us.
Ben Shishim l’zikna/Sixty is the time to be an elder. It is time to cease judging oneself by other’s accomplishments and harsh judgments of self and others. It is a piece of wisdom I have been aware of and preached about for decades and still struggle to live every day. Understanding more deeply why that is and how not to live that way is the blessing of living life open to growth and learning. Gratitude, seeing my own divinity and feeling the love I share given back to me are the tools to live with in this seventh decade of life. To those of you who are younger, bless yourself by catching the inner Korach coming out. When the voice of harsh judgement emerges or is projected on to you, ask from where it is coming. Truly understand that usually “it’s not really about me,” but either about the person making the judgement or about a person trying to live to a standard that is not authentic. Sit with the pain of being the object of harsh judgment and choose not to internalize it. Thank God for creating you as a unique and special individual. Sixty is a good age to be a healer for those who have been ruled by their inner Korach, myself and others, and continue to build a culture in our community where people are celebrated for their unique stories, rather than judged harshly.
There is another part of the story towards which I have been pulled in recent years. The rebellion was not just by Korach; other factions joined in. One of those factions was Dathan and Aviram from the tribe of Reuben. Commentators speculate that they too felt slighted and that, as the descendants of Reuben, the firstborn, they felt that they deserved leadership positions. They get so invested in their anger that they accuse Moses of bringing them from the land of milk and honey to die in the wilderness! Egypt – the land of milk and honey?? It was the land of oppression and slavery. Moses asks them to come and talk, and they refuse. For me, this is the pitched anger we see so often in the public arena. We demonize and distort those that we perceive of as our adversaries. We retreat to our silo and refuse to talk. And for all that you heard my calls in every decade of my rabbinate here to speak to each other, rather than at each other, I wonder if we can bring new approaches to connect those who have turned away from each other. A milestone birthday is a chance to reinvest in creating a different narrative, one of turning towards, listening, connecting, and finding common purpose. Dathan and Aviram, Korah and his band, are everywhere yet they tend to be swallowed up by their ambition and burned by their anger. There is a different path that I ask you to help me build.
What sustained Moses in the face of painful attack? Several things stand out: love of family – his beloved brother and sister stood by his side; true allies like Caleb and Joshua; and vision – a belief in the people even when they did not merit it. Every year, and every day, I reflect on the blessing of love, those who stand with me with unconditional love. I am so blessed with an amazing wife, Mimi; children, Ethan and Emily; siblings Jay and Leyne and their families, parents and in-laws, Merv and Leah, Ed and Sandra. Love sustains and blesses me. I feel the love as CBJ’s rabbi and it gives me purpose and fulfillment. I think Moses felt love for the Israelites and it sustained him through hurt, anger and disappointment. Even when God gives up on the people, Moses is their champion. As I become an elder, it is with knowledge that love sustains and grows. Even when it is difficult to do so, love must be sustained.
I have one last connection to the portion to share. At the end of the portion, the leader of each tribe puts the tribal staff in the Tent of Meeting before the Pact. Aaron’s staff flowers and others do not. It is a sign that Aaron and the tribe of Levi has Divine blessing. I choose to read the text differently this Shabbat. For me, the flowering staff reflects the new beginnings that can emerge after difficult times. The pandemic has been difficult, yet I believe the coming years will yield beautiful blessings and blossoming. New beginnings are hidden in every day, waiting to sprout and inspire.
Ben Shishim Lazikna/Sixty is the age to be an elder. May this sixtieth year bring beginnings, growth and beauty that I cannot imagine at this moment. May each of us see the world through the potential for renewal. May this year bring me love, healing and innovation, sunsets to cherish, trees to plant and souls to touch, and may you find those blessings as well. Mimi and I have a favorite line from the poet Robert Browning: “Come grow old with me – the best is yet to be.”