Thursday, October 24, 2013

Some people just grow up

Before Rosh Hashanah this year, I posed this question at a shiur: "How will you know if you've had a good Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?" Someone quickly replied, "If you're still here for next Rosh Hashanah!"

You can't argue with that.

You never know how good something (or someone) is, until the end. The Proteas may whack sixes and still lose the test. You don't know how it will end until it ends.

That is why philosophers argue that we've got it all wrong- we celebrate birth and mourn death. Ted Bundy's folks must have celebrated his birth, I mean who knew he'd land up in the electric chair. You go out on a limb celebrating the birth of an unknown person. And we mourn the death of the most accomplished, good people, whose life's success we should, logically, celebrate. 

Our sages sum it up as: "Don't trust yourself until the day you die."

None of us knows how we will look at the end, and we should invest the effort in that ensuring we do look good in the final assessment. Our Matriarch Sarah did. When she died at 127, the Torah says "all her years had been equally good".

The Torah also offers a clue into how she did it. It tells us that by saying she lived for 100 years and for 20 years and for 7 years. Why not simply say "she was 127 when she died"? Because the Torah wants us to know the secret that Sarah knew about making life meaningful until the end.

At age 100, Sarah was free of sin, like a twenty-year old. At twenty, she still had the innocent beauty of a seven-year-old.

By age 100, Sarah still had the purity most of us start to lose when we take on life's responsibilities. Her secret to retaining that innocence was that she kept some of her seven-year-old worldview, even as an adult.

Children are full of wonder. They question, they explore, yet the accept what they are told. Teens challenge their parents' values and their teachers' information. By the time the maelstrom of adolescence is over, we have typically rearranged our perspectives and defined a life's philosophy of our own. In adulthood, most people stop listening as openly to new ideas, fresh perspectives or other opinions. We prefer, instead, to analyze, check new ideas against our own worldview and accept or discard accordingly.

Sarah managed to keep the humble childhood ability to accept other ideas, especially those G-d shared with her husband, even after she had grown into an adult. We often recoil from the expectations of Torah or reinterpret G-d's wisdom to fit comfortably with our outlook. Sarah was open to hear new ideas and accept new direction as and when was necessary. And so, by the end of her life, she had retained the consistent dedication to G-d that many people grow tired of as life progresses.

There's a lot to be said for thinking, probing and having an independent mind. There's more to be said for retaining the innocence and humility that allows us to accept that we don't have all the answers and will never have an objectively reliable perspective on our own. Sarah, mother of the Jewish nation, teaches us to always remain the wide-eyed child who is excited by the new challenges and shifting sands of life and who is always receptive to be guided by an "adult" voice.

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