October 15, 2018

Stay open to life’s possibilities

For those of us wanting to bring the boomers’ characteristic boldness and a sense of adventure to this next chapter of our lives — to reinvent society while we remake ourselves — Judaism’s sacred stories offer ample precedent. 

And while we seek new frontiers, keep in mind that our tradition requires that we not only cultivate wisdom, but that we also share that wisdom to change the world. 

Consider, for a start, how our ancestors answered the divine call of destiny. Lech lecha: “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you” (Genesis 12:1-2).

This defining moment in the history of the Jewish people is filled with covenantal promise. Our ancestors Abram and Sarai (to become Abraham and Sarah) responded to the call with Hineni (“Here I am”). What if, instead, they had said to God and to themselves: Why would we want to do this? We have our lives, our circle of friends, our established interests; we are too set in our ways to do this. 

It is a good thing they did not. They opened themselves to possibility, left everyone and everything familiar behind, and journeyed from Haran to wherever God would lead them and created a nation. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

For those who believe that leaving home — what is known — to find yourself is strictly a young person’s mandate, think again. Tradition tells us that Abraham was 75 years old at the time, and Sarah was 65. What are we to make of that? Is there a special calling for us as we enter these years? A new path for us to pursue? 

In “The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes that lech lecha was a call for Abram and Sarai “to move to a new place, to deconstruct all the structures of the old place of being, and in a radical act of kri’ah (tearing away) … to create entirely new paradigms of reality.” Acknowledging the call to know ourselves in new ways could mean making a major life change, or it could be something more subtle. 

Identifying the call is the first step, acting on it the next. According to Savina Teubal (z”l), creator of the Simchat Chochmah (Joy of Wisdom) ceremony, this next stage of life “is a time to discard the unwanted pressures left by our parents or the culture of our tribe or clan. It is truly a time when we can, when we must, make the effort to give the next generation the benefits of our vision, complete with its realities and its dreams.”

So it’s impossible to emphasize enough the importance of sharing your wisdom.

In his book “From Age-ing to Sage-ing,” Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l) puts forth his philosophy of spiritual eldering. It looks like this: We, “the elders of the tribe,” can lead society as wisdomkeepers, inspiring others to live by higher values, and also serve as evolutionary pathfinders, offering hope and guidance to all those searching for models of a fulfilled human potential.

Spiritual eldering is a modern form of the ancient practice of calling upon the community’s elders in a time of need to provide high-level skills, reliable judgment and an ability to see the big picture.

One of the most commented on Torah portions on this subject is one we read just recently, Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1–12:16). In this section, the Israelites complain to Moses because they don’t like the food — the manna God provides daily.  Moses, deeply distraught by their ingratitude and neediness, turns to God for help with his leadership challenge. “Give me relief,” Moses says. “Or else kill me.”

Yes, it was that bad. 

God responds, saying, “Gather for me 70 of Israel’s elders … and I will draw upon them the spirit that is upon you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone” (Numbers 11:16-17).

Why the elders? They are prized for their wisdom. But how does one define wisdom? Dr. Linda P. Fried, dean of Columbia University’s School of Public Health, explains that wisdom can be broken down into numerous components. It is the ability to: 

• Understand and value knowledge accrued over a lifetime

• Look at complex problems, hold them and dissect them

• Organize around a common purpose for solutions

• Understand what’s important for our collective future

None of this is optional, according to the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides. We have an obligation to guide future generations: “Just as a person is required to teach his or her child, so, too, is the person required to teach his or her grandchild, as the verse [Deuteronomy 4:9] states, ‘And make these things known to your children and to your grandchildren’ ” (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:2).

The journey into later life was a spiritual journey for our ancestors, for the paths they took led them into a covenantal relationship with the Divine. May our own journeys into what comes next lead us to a stronger, more authentic connection to Jewish tradition and to the divine within ourselves. 

We don’t have to know what’s next. As long as we manage to stay open to what unfolds, it’s likely to be quite amazing.

Rabbi Beth Lieberman is director of the Growing in Wisdom Initiative at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills.