My daughter is turning twenty-one this month, and it’s got me thinking a lot about the meaning we attach to different ages. Seems like this passage to adulthood ought to carry with it certain increased personal and communal responsibilities. Or perhaps, this time of transition from “pre-adulthood” to full membership in the adult community should be accompanied by rituals of the spirit that are designed to help give direction and purpose to the adult path of ones personal spiritual life.
Instead, of course, in the United States turning twenty-one carries with it primarily the dubious distinction of signaling one’s readiness to enter into the “adult” world of gambling and drinking alcohol. Now I wonder what that says about our culture and society and the ways we express our values in public rituals (imagine a future anthropologist making meaning out of the rite-of-passage of pulling the handle on the slot machine…).
I would love for us to live in a world where each significant passage of time were marked with a gathering together of family and friends who would lead us in a loving ritual of transition from one stage of growth to the next that acknowledges our hopes and dreams and fears and visions for our own future. Instead, most of us stumble our ways through life’s traumatic moments feeling very alone, isolated and scared of the unknown. I know I did.
When I was twenty I spent the year studying in Israel. As a result of my year abroad, turning twenty-one while living in a dorm room in Jerusalem and studying at the Hebrew University didn’t quite have the punch that I had imagine that special birthday carrying. No Las Vegas in which to gamble, and drinking was something any one who wanted to could do already. So I sighed a lot, wrote some poignant poetry and a few melancholy songs on my guitar, and sunk into feeling sorry for myself at the realization that I was “already” twenty-one years old and still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
Now I suspect that my daughter has similar feelings from time to time as she contemplates her own future that at the moment is relatively without clear direction as well. And like many parents I wish that I could rescue her from the slings and arrows of life, hand her a future and a set of personal goals and a sense of vision about her own ability to transform the world and find meaning and purpose and a passion of her own. But I know that I can’t.
I thought about Gable and her search for life’s direction and meaning as she approaches her twenty first birthday when I read this week’s Torah portion. And it renewed my sense of faith that she would, indeed discover he own path to fulfillment in life, whether this year or next year or no matter how long it might take.
This week we begin the four thousand plus year history of the Jewish civilization, as we are introduced to the life and mission of our patriarch Abraham. The portion begins with a command/challenge from God for Abraham to leave all that he has known of his life behind and strike out into the unknown future, armed only with his own inner faith that when he discovers his place in life he will surely know it.
And then we read of God’s promise to Abraham if he is willing to display the courage and faith necessary to leave his old ways behind and forge a new and bold spiritual path. Contained in this very promise, is the vision and mission of what Abraham is to accomplish for the rest of his life as well. For God says to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.”
“I shall make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” What more could any of us dream of accomplishing in our lives than to have our names be great in the world, and our lives to be blessings? This is the single most powerful statement in the Torah, of the Jewish mission in life – to make our name great by being a blessing in the world.
The Talmud says, “More important than saying blessings, is being a blessing,” and I believe that is what life is really all about. I realized the other day that I didn’t really find my own calling in life until I was in my thirties – after I had already gone through four years of college, five years of rabbinic seminary and served as a rabbi for five years. Suddenly in the middle of my first full-time work in a pulpit I realized that I simply couldn’t imagine not being a rabbi, and how much I loved the privilege of being involved in so many life-changing moments in people’s lives.
Abraham was seventy-five when we meet him in this week’s portion and he discovers his own spiritual destiny. So at twenty-one, I suppose that Gable can relax a bit and give herself the gift of time, exploration of the multitudinous options that life has to offer, and have faith that eventually she too will discover her personal passions and that which will give meaning, purpose and joy to her life. After all, she’s already one up on Abraham – she already is a blessing.