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Young (of Heart) vs. Old

There seems to be endless talk about division these days. Whether it’s those fighting tooth and nail over the future of Britain, the vicious campaigning for the upcoming elections in Israel, or the widening gulf between Republicans and Democrats here in America, there are no shortage of ideas or values that are ripping us apart.

But recent research by the World Values Survey and by the Pew Research Center suggest that the most significant divide these days is not between races, between political parties, or between faiths. The greatest difference when it comes to values and beliefs comes down to one thing – age; it’s young vs. old.

A brilliant ad went out before the midterm elections to encourage young Americans to show up and vote. They did so by featuring the enemy of the young – elderly men and women. These elders were depicted as taunting young Americans about prevalent issues. “Tax cuts for the rich?” said one elderly gentleman, “heck yeah, I’m rich as ___” Another, had an elderly woman mock climate change. “Climate change?” she asked, “That’s a ‘you’ problem. I’ll be dead soon.”

In our own communities, there’s the dwindling support in college campuses for Israel, not only by non-Jews, but by our own children. And what I hear over and over again, in conversations with the young, are that they are disillusioned, disenfranchised, and disengaged with the establishment. It would seem, that we too are experiencing a growing divide between the young and the old in our community; between those who want to hold on to the past and those who want to bring it all down and start anew.

And this is not a new issue, it’s a rather old one. Nadav and Avihu, two children of Aharon, in this week’s parsha, bring forth an offering of incense on the day the Mihskan was inaugurated, only to be struck down by a heavenly fire. The Medrashic literature sheds some light on this rather cryptic passage. It begins by telling us that Nadav and Avihu were no pushovers. They were slated to be the next leaders of the Jewish People. They were holier, Rashi quotes, than even Aharon and Moshe! Why then, did they die? Why then was their offering rejected in such a dramatic and fatal fashion?

Our Sages suggest a number of approaches, but today I’d like to focus on just one. The Talmud in Sanhedrin quotes these two promising men, Nadav and Avihu, as saying the following: “Eimasai yomusu sh’nei zekeinim halalu? When will these two old men die?” – a reference to Moshe and Aharon – “Va’ani v’atah nanhig es hador, so that you and I will lead this generation.”  

In other words, the incense they brought, was not the cause of their death. It’s what it symbolized. It symbolized an impatience with the status quo, with the current leadership, with the way things were. They saw things differently – and presumably, as they were slated to be the successors, as they were indeed described as even holier than Moshe, they were presumably correct in their understanding of what the generation truly needed! Nonetheless, G-d is recorded as replying to their sentiment, “Let us see who buries whom.” They were playing with fire, quite literally, and G-d stepped in to ensure that they would not succeed.

Rabbi Reuven Katz, the first chief rabbi of Petach Tikvah, suggests that this was not a one-time struggle, it is an eternal one, of young leaders in every generation. Those young leaders, he writes, who are good and righteous, who understand the culture of the youth in a way the elders can never dream of, who so deeply desire to right the wrongs that they correctly observe. Nonetheless, their premature, impatient offering is, in the words of the Torah, very much like the incense offering of Nadav and Avihu; it is an aish zarah, a foreign fire.

But it’s not that simple. Judaism doesn’t just dismiss the idealism and altruism of the young in favor of the old. It’s far more complicated. And that’s because in Judaism there are two currents that are always at play and always in conflict. There are two moments that define our existence more than any others – Ma’amad Har Sinai, standing at Sinai, receiving the law, and another moment which have yet to experience – the Messianic Era, Yemos Hamashiach, a brilliant and rectified future.

From the perspective of Sinai, we are always regressing, we are always moving further and further away from the clarity of that moment when G-d spoke directly to man. We are moving further and further away from a true understanding of G-d’s will. And in that light, the past is holy, the past is pure, and we, so distant from that moment, are nobodies. In the words of our Sages, “If the earlier generations were like angels, we are like men, and if they are like men, we are like donkeys.” The elders, in this model, are to be revered, the past is to be enshrined, the youth ignored, any talk of a different future should be met with skepticism.

But from the perspective of Mashiach, from the perspective of the End of Days, that view is completely backward. From the Messianic perspective, we are progressing, closer and closer, higher and higher, to a time of peace, of moral perfection, of clarity. And in that light, the younger we are, the closer we are to the truth. In Kabbalistic literature, the lights of the Menorah represent the ascent of generations, history marches to a brighter future. The youth, in this model, those who are attuned to the changes in the wind, are the heroes, overriding the ignorance of the old.

So who wins? And why?

Obviously, there is no winner. It is a constant tension, as both have a place in the development of the world; a connection to our past and the ability to dream of a brighter future. But in the sum-total of Jewish literature, it would seem, that the heavy past carries more weight than the flighty future.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, one of the greatest dreamers of our time, in his work on repentance, points out that within each one of us, there is a powerful faculty of imagination. Our imagination allows us to dream of a better future of ourselves, a version of ourselves that we wouldn’t even recognize; pure and kind, gracious and noble, wise and ambitious. But our imagination is held back by the material, by our body, by who we are. And that’s because our dreams have to be tethered to reality. We cannot start anew, destroy our being, and destroy our past, we need to work with what we have.

The same could be said about communal growth, namely, that dreaming, that change, all of that essential. But a progressive model that gives no credence to the past is not rooted in reality. The experience at Sinai was a clear one; laws set in stone, painting a picture of exactly what we need to do. The Messianic vision, on the other hand, is quite blurry, it’s full of zest and zeal, but it is often lacking in its connection to reality.

And so the verdict, in the harsh words of our sages, is that if the young say to build and the old say to destroy, we listen to the old. And this is because, in their words, “the building of the young is destruction, and the destruction of the old is building.” (Nedarim, 40) In other words, the old, people with more life experience, people who perhaps are closer to death and therefore more risk-averse and realistic, people who are closer to the rock-solid experience at Sinai, they are biased towards construction. Even when they speak of destruction, we could assume it has a constructive agenda. Whereas those who are filled with lofty dreams, those who could divine and appreciate what the future has in store, are tragically prone to destroy.

This is not to say that we should not dream and it’s not to say we should not change. We must dream and we must change! What it does mean is that the past is far firmer than the future, and we need to proceed with caution.

Practically, what does this mean?

I was talking to someone who attended this past Sunday’s event with Judge Ruchie Freier, and I asked her what stood out more than anything else. Now most people I spoke to said they were inspired by her ability to pray three times a day, or to hold on to her standards despite her surroundings. Some told me they were taken aback by her imposition of modesty on Megyn Kelly. But this individual told me that the part that really stuck out and the part she struggled with the most, was how Judge Freir still spoke so glowingly of her community. How she wanted her children to be a part of that community and how she sought to understand the dynamics of her community, despite the lack of support, despite the pushback, and despite the hate she endured. Why would she want to stick around? This person asked me. How could she stick around?

And I thought about another guest we once had in the shul. Someone who also experienced pushback for his views, for his actions. But this young man, as opposed to Freier, decided to leave his community. He decided to start his own community. And he currently sits at the periphery of his community and highlights every single one of its many flaws, burning the many bridges between him and the community he came from.

And I am very concerned for all the followers that this young man has. Because on the one hand, he is building something pure, he really is; he’s attempting to rectify all that is broken. But in doing so, he and his followers are losing out in the powerful support of community and the beautiful embrace and comfort found in the traditions of the past. With all its evils, and there are plenty, there is also so much good, I would argue so much more good than bad, and it is all being walked away from. It’s a beautiful and pure community, but I am concerned that he is building a palace in the sky, on the soft and fleeting clouds that can so easily blow away with a soft wind.

Judge Ruchie Freier, in her own way, I think, is a role model for all of us, on a communal level and on a personal one, to see the good that already exists. Don’t get me wrong – Just because we’ve always done it this way is not a valid reason to continue doing something that way. But – at the same time, chances are, if we’ve been doing it for all this time, there’s probably a good reason.

Judge Freier respected the structure. She forced herself to reexamine why things were done. And within that framework, she asked, how can we work to fix what’s broken? How can we maintain this beautiful community that we have, with all its amazing good, and still bring about the necessary change? How can we bridge the rock-solid experience at Sinai with the lofty vision of the End of Days?

The image in my mind that captures this, is the story I’ve shared with some of you in the past, of a professor who hands out a piece of paper with a black dot in the center. He asks them to write a description of what they see. 45 minutes later, he collects the papers, and he receives a collection of essays – some wrote about how the black dot represented their darkest secrets in a deep, deep hole. Others described the black dot as depression – as a blackness that had no exit and couldn’t be escaped from. Others, more mathematically inclined, described the black dot as infinity.

And the next day, they received their papers back with a grade. Each and every one of them received an F.

The teacher explained, “You know why you failed? You know why you all got an F? Because, you didn’t follow my instructions. I asked you to write about what was in front of you on the paper. You were handed a white paper. 99% of the paper is clear, beautiful, warm white. And you decided to write about the little black dot?!”

 

On a personal level, we are so quickly drawn to our own flaws or the flaws of those around us, without seeing the beauty that surrounds that flaw, the purity that makes those flaws so easily seen.

On a communal level, there is a whole lot of good, a lot of amazing things that we already have in place. At the same time, there is also, not just one black dot, a good number of them and it is incumbent upon the young-of-heart, those attuned to the winds of change, to what is perhaps even the echoes of an approaching End of Days, to marry their dream to the foundation of the past, and the accumulated wisdom of our collective experience.

Likewise, it is incumbent upon the old to listen to the young, and to work together, within that framework, within our rich tradition, to bring about the necessary change, to bring the strong mountains of Sinai in touch with the lofty dreams of heaven on earth. It is no simple task to bridge these two worldviews, but no one said it would be.

May we live to see a fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy, the beautiful words of Zechariah the prophet:

כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת עֹ֤ד יֵֽשְׁבוּ֙ זְקֵנִ֣ים וּזְקֵנ֔וֹת בִּרְחֹב֖וֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם וְאִ֧ישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּ֛וֹ בְּיָד֖וֹ מֵרֹ֥ב יָמִֽים׃

“Thus said Hashem, there shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with a cane in their hand due to their old age.” And yet, וּרְחֹב֤וֹת הָעִיר֙ יִמָּ֣לְא֔וּ יְלָדִ֖ים וִֽילָד֑וֹת מְשַׂחֲקִ֖ים בִּרְחֹֽבֹתֶֽיה

“The squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the square.”

The young with the old, the mountains with the clouds, the past with the future, bimheira v’yameinu, speedily in our days, Amen.

 

 

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