One of the most interesting stories in the Haggadah is one from Gemara Brachot. It tells us of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria who was an 18-year-old Talmudic genius. He had been chosen to become the Nassi (President of the Rabbinate). When he came home and told his wife, she tried very hard to dissuade him from accepting the offer because of all of the headaches associated with the gig. He then tells her: “Should one not drink out of a crystal glass for fear of it breaking?”. Bottom line: You can’t use the possibility of something going wrong as an excuse to not try it out. Which ultimately led his wife to say to him “But even so, how can you be the Nassi, you’re beard isn’t even white!”. That night, as the story goes, God turned Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah’s beard white as indicated in the Hagaddah—“I am Like a man of Seventy Years old” Kven Shivim Shana. Even though he was only 18, overnight he looked like he was 70.
These days, as a result of technological advances, the information revolution, and the ability for anyone to learn more and do more than ever, more and more young people are opening their horizons, dreaming big, and not waiting to until a later time to start their lives.
Sitting at our Family Seder, when reading this part about Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, we debated the topic of Respect. Are the times changing? Is respect no longer automatically attributed simply because of age? Is age no longer a factor? There are, of course, positive and negative results of such. For example, It’s clear that children are no longer as submissive as they were in previous generations and parents aren’t always as controlling. But the quintessential question we tried to answer was how can we keep the important respect we have always attributed to our past and it’s people, while in parallel recognizing that as Bob Dylan sang, “The Times They Are a-Changin”, because indeed, Young people and even children now have more knowledge than ever before and have technical know-how that allows them to do incredible things with that knowledge.
“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging”
– Bob Dylan
Rabbi Elazar needed a big white beard because he couldn’t be accepted as a wise leader if he looked like an 18-year-old. I’ve been in enough awkward meetings and conferences to know that this approach is still very much existent (even more so towards 14,15,16 & 17 year-olds). But along with that, things have changed. The opportunities are there for younger people whether we like it or not and people are slowly becoming more open to the cliché idea that age is often just a number.
This issue is an important one because while knowledge may be available to almost everyone today, life experience is something that can’t be learned on Youtube, Google, or Wikipedia and should not be neglected.
At the Seder, our main conclusion was that we must differentiate between honor and respect. People need to earn our respect, but honor is deserved and giving it dignifies the giver as well as the receiver.
While we, young people, often still wish we had white beards (or the respect that is given to older people and denied of young ones) that would allow us to operate how we would like, we can’t ignore real life experience. We need to honor and dignify the past that has brought us to this unique point in time where so many opportunities are presented to us. Ones that were never before were given to such young people. At the same time, we, of course, need to continue thinking out of the box and being in-submissive to the norms we are surrounded by. It’s important to ensure that we keep drinking from that crystal glass, even though it might break so that we can continue innovating and changing the world.
Balancing these two notions is precisely the challenge much of Generation Z faces today. Navigating through the traditional world with game changing approaches. Combining risks with smart ideas. Changing the world, while building on the good parts that have been created up until now.
In a sense, Bob Dylan and Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria are telling the same story. In “The Times they are a-changin”, Dylan explains that the world is constantly changing and moving and so previous generations can’t always understand the next ones. In the Talmud, the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria can serve as a point of contrast to a time when things were different, when young people, even though they were geniuses, needed an act of God so that they could look older and be given respect. We can also learn from this how even then, when 18 was an inconceivable age for such a high position, young Rabbi Elazar knew that risks are a part of any life worth living.
Rabbi Elazar applied this unique approach throughout his life by being independent in his Biblical interpretations and often daring to reject opinions of other famous Rabbis. In doing such, he essentially innovated from the inside out. Similarly, while our elders may never fully understand us, we, Generation Z, must understand them so we can reach our full potential.