Yom Kippur – The Weight of our Best Paper

09.27.2015

Back in the memorable year of 1968, at the height of the student protest movement, there was a popular movie called Wild in the Streets. In this film, there was a revolution in the United States led by a young firebrand named Max Frost, born Max Jacob Flatow. As a result of the revolution, the voting age was lowered to 14. The new mandatory retirement age was 30. And, anyone over the age of 35 was exiled to a reeducation farm in the countryside where she was permanently dosed with LSD.

Max Frost runs for president and wins. And, similar revolutions were breaking out in all the world’s major countries. As president, Max withdraws the military from around the world, he ships surplus grain for free to third world nations, he disbands the CIA and the FBI, and he becomes the leader of what he proudly calls “the most truly hedonistic society the world has ever known.”

But, in the very last scene, Max Frost is 29 years old. And, two ten year olds are looking at him with condescension and contempt, as if to say, this guy is on his way out. The world will belong to us soon.

I haven’t thought about this film in a long time. But, I thought about it again this past summer in connection with two small encounters that I experienced in my travels. One day, I was visiting the Israel Museum in Jerusalem with my daughter Shani. And, there was a senior citizen discount for the entrance fee. But, I missed the cutoff by a few months.

So, Shani said to the woman at the desk, “my dad is so close to the cutoff date. Can’t you give him the discount?’ And, the woman said that unfortunately, she couldn’t. I was thrilled. I was so happy. It’s true, I had to pay a little more. But, I was secretly glad that I didn’t yet qualify for the discount.

A few weeks earlier, when I was at the airport, and going through security, I expected to be given the chance to skip the long lines of waiting, because, lately, that’s happened to me sometimes. The officer in charge will look at me, and I’m guessing, based on my age, conclude that I am not dangerous.

But, this time, as I was going through security, the official made me go through the long line with everyone else. And, I was inconvenienced. But, I was secretly glad that someone thought I could still be dangerous.

The generation that once said ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty” now has children who are thirty and older. My son David will be thirty in October. And, I have friends my age who have children closer to forty. What do we make of this? What does it all mean?

Over the summer, I read the book The Big Shift by Marc Freedman. It made a big impression on me. Freedman says we need a paradigm shift in the way we think about being fifty and over. Freedman calls that stage The Third Age.

Not so long ago, a person might retire at the age of 65, and he could hope for a few more good years. In those days, retirement meant a vacation well earned after years of hard work. But, Freedman says, today, many people can expect to live for 30 years after retirement. And, many, if not most of those years can be in good health and with high energy.  Thirty years is a long vacation.

What can we do with that time? One idea that is very popular is re-invention. We can re-invent ourselves. Be someone new. Freedman doesn’t like this idea. He says that in The Third Age, we don’t need to re-invent ourselves. As we get older, we gain very valuable life experience. We get better and better at what we do. Why throw away all of that experience and do something completely new?

Instead, what we should do is use that experience in a new way. And, Freedman says the wisdom of experience dovetails with something else that we develop as we get older, and that’s the ability to integrate a wide range of experiences. We get better at seeing the whole field and putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

Freedman gives the example of Gary Maxworthy. Forty years ago, Gary wanted to enter the Peace Corps. But, he had a family to support. So, instead, he launched a career in the food distribution business.

But, as Gary approached sixty, his wife died. Her passing triggered a period of soul searching, and Gary decided to join VISTA. Because of his job experience, he was place at the San Francisco food bank. He quickly discovered that the food bank was mostly giving out canned and processed food.

Well, he knew something about food. He had thirty years worth of knowledge! He knew that growers in California were throwing away an immense quantity of fresh fruit and vegetables each year. So, Maxworthy became the matchmaker. He knew the vendors, he knew the truck routes. He knew the distributors. And, he launched Farm to Family. In 2010, Farm to Family distributed more than 100 million pounds of fresh food to families in California..

And, here is the thing. He could never have done this work at the age of twenty-two. He was only able to do it, because he connected his youthful idealism to the business savy and contacts that he had accumulated during his successful career.

And, Freedman asks: what if the whole country worked this way? We have in the Baby Boomer generation a precious resource that we are wasting. We have millions of people who have tremendous talents and millions of years of job experience and life experience.

And, we are not taking advantage of it. If you read the papers, the aging of the Baby Boomer population is mostly a source of anxiety. All these people living longer than expected is a problem. It’s going to overwhelm the Social Security system.

It might. But, why not look at it differently? Why not look at this huge talent pool as an opportunity?  Freedman says that the exciting thing about the Third Age is this: We have people who are old enough to know that we won’t live forever.And, at the same time, we are young enough and energetic enough to do something about it—to do something significant with this newfound awareness.  That is a fabulous combination.

Freedman’s ideas reminded me of an experience I had when I was in college. When I was an undergraduate psychology major at NYU, I had to take a course in Experimental Psychology with Professor Paul Vitz. A lot of the material was highly technical and on the surface not that interesting, but Dr. Vitz had a way of making the very mundane seem exciting. The toughest part of the course was the lab report we had to write after each experiment. We had to write six of them.

Dr. Vitz knew that he was dealing with a bunch of psychology majors who weren’t inclined to do this kind of work. He took that as a challenge. He believed he could train us to be little research scientists, and he was very exacting in how he wanted these reports done. He promised us that if we worked hard, we’d get better with each paper. And, here is the most important part. To encourage us, he told us he would base our course grade on the best paper we wrote of the six.

So, if we got five C’s, but the last paper was an A, he would give us an A in the course, because we would have demonstrated to him that we now know how to write a lab report.

I remember this class decades later, because Dr. Vitz’s grading system gave me great hope. It gave me the feeling that even if I had many mistakes—even if I had failed many times in the past—I still had a

chance to excel. And, that meant a lot to me.

Our Tradition teaches us that every moment of our lives has unique potential.  We get up in the morning and we say: modeh ani lefanecha, melech chai v’kayam….thank you God for giving me my life today…rabbah emunatecha….great is your faith in me.

When we say ‘great is your faith in me’ we imply two things. First, God has a reason for giving us life, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. And, second, we’re not done yet. When someone has faith in me, it means I have potential that I haven’t yet fulfilled, and she believes I will yet fulfill that potential.

As far as I can tell, there is no statute of limitations on Modeh Ani. We don’t stop saying Modeh Ani when we’re 65 or any other age. As long as we are alive, we live in a state of potential. Any moment has the potential for being filled with great beauty. And, since we keep accumulating wisdom, the last paper we write could be our very best one. And, I would like to believe that God grades us on our best paper.

In the Torah, we have many example of leaders who did some of their best work in their later years. Abraham is one. Moses is another. But, the person who especially speaks to our time is Jacob. And, that’s because, like us, Jacob experienced a sudden increase in his life expectancy.

In the Book of Bereshit, we read:

Vayechi Yaakov b’eretz mitzrayim shva esrei shanah

Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years

On the surface, it would seem that in these 17 years in Egypt, Jacob is just marking time. He is 130 years old when he gets to Egypt. And he has led a good life. He has 13 children, he is a wealthy man.

And, when Jacob was dramatically reunited with Joseph he cried out

Amuta ha’paam/ now I can die happy

Because I’ve had the joy of seeing you again.

And, yet Jacob didn’t die. He lived another 17 years. What happened during those 17 years?   It turns out, a lot happened. The last 17 years of Jacob’s life were years of healing for him. Nothing could undo the 22 years of grieving for Joseph. But, it was surely a great comfort to Jacob to have 17 more years of time with Joseph— He must have blessed every day.

During these 17 years, Jacob undoubtedly attended many simchas. He saw weddings. He was at the birth of grandchildren and great grandchildren.

And, when Joseph brings the grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe to be blessed by Jacob, Jacob muses so touchingly:

R’oh fanech lo pilalti v’hinei her’a oti elokim gam et zarecha

I never expected to see your face again, and now look, God has allowed me to see your children.

With all of Jacob’s ups and downs, there is still this one sweet moment that awaits Jacob at the end of his life. It’s never too late to experience a moment of redemption. Jacob did some of his best work in his final 17 years. And, I would like to believe that God graded him accordingly.

My father, Rabbi Nathan Rosenbaum, died of lymphoma in 1978 at the age of 54. My father did some of his best work in the last six years of his life, as entered into the Third Age. He started a monthly Shabbat program that brought hundreds of people to shul. And, that program is still running today, 37 years later.

I often wonder what my father might have been able to accomplish if he had been able to live to a ripe old age. And, I don’t mean only in his career. Knowing the impact my mother has had on my children, I wonder how the lives of my children might have been enriched if they’d had a chance to get to know my father, as well.

Over the years, I have had so many people share with me memories of touching moments that occurred in the lives of loved ones who by all logic shouldn’t have been in this world anymore. People who defied medical odds and lives a few more years, a few more months—-and during this time danced at a grandchild’s wedding or saw the birth of a great grandchild, or celebrated a bat mitzvah with the family. And, how much it meant to everyone that they were there.

I have heard more than once from an adult son or daughter: “You know my father and I were not that close when I was growing up, but during these past five years when we were able to spend a lot of time together, we got to know each other in a whole new way—and it meant so much to both of us.”

Dave Director once told me that when his father Morris z’l was 94 years old he had already lived a very rich and meaningful life.  But, Dave was touched that his father continued try new things even at the age of 94.

On the Thanksgiving before he died, Morris was visiting from Portland. And, one day, he said “What do you call that thing—the needle?” He meant the Space Needle, of course.

So, off the family went. It was a cold day, but sunny and perfectly clear. And, they bundled Morris up real well. And, they went up the Space Needle and he enjoyed it immensely and had a fabulous day. And, at the end of the day, Morris turned to Dave and the family and thanked them. And, he got a little teary, and he said, “You know, that was a really nice day. I really enjoyed the time we spent together.”

These are all beautiful experiences. But, for our generation, the potential is even greater. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, but, as Marc Freedman says, many of us will live thirty good years beyond retirement age. What could we do with those years?

Let’s start by going back in time a little. We were once a generation that believed we could change the world. We wrote music about it. We took the streets about it.

Maybe we were a little naïve. When I was in graduate school, I lived in a house with four roommates, two men and two women. All of us were into nature. And, as a way of preserving nature from the destructive hand of humanity, we didn’t cut the grass in our front yard. And, I had a friend who had a nicely manicured lawn and I viewed her with disdain. She was so bourgeois.

OK, we were a little silly sometimes. And, our heartfelt ideals seemed to lack staying power. We didn’t exactly return to the land. Within a few years, we put on suits, and we cut our hair, and we put down our guitars and we went to work. We were teachers, lawyers, doctors, and business executives. Some of us even worked in plastics.

Some say we simply grew up and left our childhood notions behind. Yet, I don’t think all of our idealism disappeared. Today every first grader knows that we have to take care of the environment. If there is still time to have the conversation about climate change, it’s because that conversation started on the grass at Woodstock.

The world hasn’t changed as rapidly as we thought it would. But, we haven’t given up on change. Decades of experience have given us tools to change the world we didn’t have when we were younger. And, it’s given us the patience to persist even when we don’t get instant results.

And, the same is true for us as Jews. Our generation represents one of the  great untapped opportunities for the Jewish people. Many of us, when we reach the age of fifty, begin to think of taking early retirement from Jewish life. We’re tempted to isolate ourselves from the community, both geographically and emotionally at time when the community needs us the most—at a time when we have the most to offer—at a time when we are doing our best work.

And, why shouldn’t we? Our kids are out of the house. We’ve done what we can to raise the next generation. And, the Jewish world is telling us that we are not needed anymore. Most synagogues worry most about how are we going to get the younger generation to be active in the shul. And, of course, we want that to happen.

But, what if we could look at it differently? What if we turned to our Empty Nesters, our Third Agers, and we said: You are our great hope. You are our most precious resource. You have thousands of years of life experience in a wide variety of human endeavors. You have talent and know how that you have accumulated over a life time. You have years of energetic living ahead of you. And, you are old enough to want to make each day count. What if we could harness that life experience, that energy and that sense of purpose in the service of our people?

That’s a big project. That’s a big conversation. Let’s have that conversation together. I want to invite everyone to read Marc Freedman’s book. And, then let’s come together after the holidays and talk and explore, and let’s see how creative we can be in creating a new paradigm for Jewish living in the Third Age.

A few weeks ago, Oliver Sacks passed away at the age of 82. Oliver Sacks was a poster child for the Third Age. He was a brilliant neurologist who changed the way we think about the human brain. He was a motorcyclist who once rode with the Hell’s Angels. He was a body builder who once broke a record by bench pressing 500 pounds.

Just a few weeks before he died, Oliver Sacks wrote an op ed piece for the New York Times about the Shabbat. His parents, both physicians, and musicians, and renaissance people in their own right, raised him in a shomer Shabbat home. He recalled the Shabbat of his childhood when aunts, uncles and cousins all lived within walking distance of each other and would spend the day together.

He describes how he gradually distanced himself from Jewish practice. There were many factors. The community changed. His mother called his being gay a religious abomination. And, over time, Sacks disconnected himself from the formal Jewish community.

But, in the 1990’s Sacks came to know his Israeli cousin, Robert John Aumann, a Nobel Prize winning scientist. And, he describes an interview in which Robert John speaks about the beauty of the Shabbat. And, in 2015, Sacks went to Israel for the first time in 50 years to celebrate the 100th birthday of his cousin Marjorie.

He was invited to Shabbat dinner at Robert John’s. He marveled at how much had changed—how he and his lover, Billy, had been so warmly received in this Orthodox environment. But, mostly, he reflected on the peace of the Shabbat and how that peace infused everything in his cousin’s home.

And, he found himself wondering: what if? What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? And, as he reflects on what it means to live a good life,  he says: “I find myself drifting to the Sabbath…the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

What amazed me about Oliver Sacks’s words was that he was still growing, still contributing, still sharing his wisdom with the world only a few weeks before he died. He was still changing his mind until his last moment. And, I also could not help but notice: what a loss to the Jewish people that this incredibly gifted man remain disconnected from the Jewish community for 50 years. How many more Oliver Sacks’s are out there whose talent is yet untapped by our people?

Modeh ani lefanecha….thank you God for giving me this day of life, and for your faith that my best work may yet be ahead of me.

We do not presume to know God’s grading system. But, I’d like to believe that like Dr. Vitz, God weights our best paper.

If that’s true, there is always a reason to look forward to the future. For, no matter how fully or richly we may already have lived, our most beautiful moments may be yet to come.

There is no guarantee that we will succeed. And, there is always the option of shipping ourselves out to LSD farms and living out the rest of our lives in a blissful vacation.

But, let’s not go there just yet. Let’s prove to the world that we can still be dangerous.