I write this blog as pressure mounts on Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (age 82) to retire at the end of this Supreme Court term and before the 2022 election to enable President Biden to appoint a liberal judge to fill Breyer’s seat while the Senate remains in Democratic control. Word from one of his former associates is that Justice Breyer will likely do so. However, the issues involved around his retirement extend beyond the high court and are relevant for us all.
There are so many people who resist retiring when they ought to do so for a variety of legitimate reasons. Some say they have no developed interests other than work, don’t know what they’d do with their time, and fear the unknown. Others believe that only they have the experience, expertise, judgment, and wisdom to do their job and that leaving their position would leave a void filled by others’ incompetence. Some worry about their loss of income. Many fear they’d become irrelevant and unproductive. And some are dependent emotionally upon the respect and admiration they receive in their position.
I’m not suggesting that everyone should retire at a particular age, be it sixty, sixty-five, seventy, eighty, or older. I am suggesting that there comes a time when it’s right to step away from one’s vocation when certain factors are clear. For me, that time came two years ago, but it was in the works for over the past four or five years. I had led a synagogue community for decades and accomplished everything I wanted and needed to do. I understood as well that the American liberal Jewish community was changing, and that younger rabbinic leadership was necessary to effectively carry forward the life of my congregation. I had my opportunity to lead, and it was time to enable another to take over in my place. I knew also that my particular interests extended beyond the specifics of synagogue leadership, that I could develop those interests and devote far more time to them and to my family in ways I’d never had the opportunity to do in my adult life.
I’m reminded of the collection of Midrashim about Moses as an old man who refused to accept the divine decree that he would not live forever nor enter the Promised Land. Moses argued with God: ‘How can You, Almighty One, not let me, your most intimate and trusted servant, the only human ever to meet You panim el panim (face to face/soul to soul) to live eternally and to enter the Promised Land?’ God answered: ‘Moses — your decree is sealed, but I will transport you to the study hall of one of the greatest sages of future generations so that you will understand that your end-time as leader has arrived and that even you, my most cherished one, are not immortal.’
Moses found himself suddenly in the presence of the great Rabbi Akiva. One of Akiva’s students asked about the origin of the sage’s teaching. Akiva answered: ‘It was received by Moses at Mount Sinai.’
Moses was dumbstruck, for he did not understand, and in his incapacity he felt small and humiliated. But, he realized that his time had indeed come to step away, that he was no longer the leader he once had been, that he must accept his fate and the way of all human beings.
Though these Midrashim addressed death as the ultimate reality in Moses’ life, the teaching also applies to the living, that there comes a time for us all when acceptance of change is necessary, that we are no longer necessarily effective enough or capable enough to carry on as we had in former days. When that time comes, it is in our best interest and the best interests of those we serve, who depend on us, who look to us to lead, to step aside and allow the next generation to assume the mantle of leadership.
Though change means loss of all kinds, it opens us as well to new opportunities. The twentieth-century French philosopher Paul-Michel Foucault put it this way: “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” And Buddha taught: “In our lives, change is unavoidable, loss is unavoidable. In the adaptability and ease with which we experience change, lies our happiness and freedom.”