Across the North America, a great pilgrimage will take place in one month from today, as it does every year – thousands of ‘Millennials’ (people born after 1980), from Park Slope, Brooklyn, to Brickell Avenue in Downtown Miami, to Chicago, to Los Angeles (and many other ‘hip’ places), will be journeying home to join their families for the High Holidays, the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. When they arrive home, they will sleep in twin size beds in their childhood bedrooms, seemingly transformed back to being a 16 year old in high school. They will don their finest suits, and eventually enter a sanctuary surrounded by an unfamiliar sight – a lot of older Jews!
I write this to you from Boca Raton, Florida, which has the highest concentration of Jews in their 80’s and 90’s in the entire country, but I am also writing this to you as an elder millennial (born in 1979). I know what you might be thinking as you sit in your home synagogue – what am I doing here surrounded by people three or four times my own age?!? What do I need them for anyway? What can they possibly teach me when most of them don’t even know how to use a computer, let alone know what a hashtag is? Well, they have a lot to teach you, but even if you don’t believe me, I want you to do one thing this High Holidays – sit at their feet and learn.
For the past four summers, I have gone to the home of Rabbi Jack Riemer, one of the pre-eminent sermonizers of the last fifty years. Jack, like many Jews his age, lives in Boca Raton, is an avid shul (synagogue) goer, and is considered a member of many synagogues in South Florida. Jack used to be the rabbi at the synagogue (Congregation Beth Tikvah) that my community (Congregation Shaarei Kodesh) merged with, and he still comes quite often. As a young rabbi at his first pulpit, I was at first, very intimidated, thinking to myself: how am I going to give sermons in front of Rabbi Jack Riemer?!?
But Jack is always gracious and helpful, and four years ago, after a year of him listening to my sermons, I got the courage to ask him if I could learn from him. After our conversation, Jack added me to his email list, a list of people he sends the three or four quality sermons he writes a week to under the condition that we never deliver them word for word. Jack teaches in numerous institutions around South Florida, and often speaks at conferences, most of the time at no cost, as Jack often says, more than the calf needs to drink milk, the cow needs to give.
I am still amazed at his energy and passion for Judaism that drives him even in his advanced age.
I remember walking into his home that first time – his kind wife Sue, who is in poor health, trying to feed me. Jack listened to my ideas, guiding me in the right direction, offering constructive criticisms, and then asking me to help him with his sermons! Out of all of the chevrutot (study partners) I have had in life, I might treasure this one the most.
There is a line in the High Holiday liturgy that started jumping out at me after we started meeting together. It’s a line in the Shema Kolenu prayer – “Do not take Your Holy presence from us. Do not cast us away as we grow old; do not desert us as our energy wanes.” My chevrutah gave me new perspective on this prayer. We ask not to take his Ruach HaKodesh from us, and immediately we ask God not to cast us away as we grow old and weaker. Perhaps it is a message to ourselves – if we want the Ruach HaKodesh, the holy spirit, in our lives, we must never cast the old and physically weak away.
It reminded me of a story in the Talmud, Berachot 8b:
‘“R. Yehoshua ben Levi said to his children:…Be careful regarding how you treat an elderly individual who has forgotten his learning due to circumstances beyond his control, as we say, “The tablets as well as the broken pieces of the tablets were placed in the Ark.”’
Here we see an interesting philosophy of seeing our seniors, even those who cannot teach like they once could: they must still be respected for the Torah and wisdom that they once possessed, just like the first set of the tablets that the Ten Commandments were written on, and destroyed by Moses. If we must honor those who have forgotten their knowledge, how much the more so should we honor, revere, and learn from our seniors who still have lessons to teach?
I want to conclude with a short teaching from the book, the Ethics of our Fathers. The teaching begins after a long line of names or Rabbis, beginning with the ultimate rabbi, Moses. Moses receives the Torah from God, and from there, it is passed on to Joshua, the prophets, the men of the Great Assembly, to the last surviving member of the Great Assembly, Shimon the righteous, and then, on to Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzeredah and Yosi ben Yochanan, from Jerusalem – “Let your house be a meetinghouse for the sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst.” What Torah did they want to pass on? A Torah based on learning from the most brilliant, and experienced minds. We must interact with them, to bring them into our homes, to build relationships with them, to sit at their feet, and literally drink their words in with thirst if we want to take hold of this Torah for our generation, so we too can one day pass it on to our children.
It might be your grandparents, or it could be the senior who keeps your synagogue’s morning minyan going and who is there every year to greet you at the door to your High Holiday service. Whoever it is, listen to their story, seek advice from them, and let them teach you; sit at their feet and learn from them. Do not figuratively cast them off because you might lose the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, in the process. God willing, one day, you’ll be as senior and wise as they are, and maybe a young man or woman in their twenties will sit at your feet to ‘drink’ your own words with thirst.