Not being able to attend Kol Nidre at a local synagogue, a friend mentioned how there are any number of services that live stream for the holiday. Now, of course, for the Orthodox among us, that is a big no-no. No electronic devices, no television and no computer. But being someone who is just this side of nonobservant Reform, it actually was just what I needed. In fact, it was a beautiful service. Every major prayer was explained, discussed, and associated back to our modern world. The Congregation was taught how to identify with the ancient scriptures of Yom Kippur.
Now the one part of the service which I usually do not enjoy is the sermon. I simply don’t like having someone pontificate to me about how I should feel, think or believe. If you haven’t figured it out already, I am a bit of a stiff-necked and recalcitrant Jew. Deciding on my own who I am, and how my Judaism fits into my life. But this time, the sermon was different. The young rabbi, and to me he was quite young, asked us if our 20-year-old selves, would be proud of the people we had become.
It was an interesting discussion of idealism, naiveté, youthful purpose and belief. The Rabbi challenged us to revisit that era of our youth when you, and you alone, had the power to believe in something greater than yourself, and to try to find a way to act upon that belief. The Rabbi talked about the difference between naiveté and idealism. How the term “idealism” has a poor connotation of foolishness and an adult’s inability to handle reality. He tried to explain that idealism is not a sense of poor judgement, but a belief that we can do better as human beings. I suppose that was the message of this Yom Kippur, and in fact every Yom Kippur that every was or will be…we as human beings can do better, no matter how good we think we have done.
Then as I lay in bed after the service, I started thinking about my 20-year-old self and whether I would be pleased with who I had become. I thought, no I would not. It was not the sense that I don’t try to do good deeds. Its not that I do not give to charity and try to help others. It’s that I have strayed from a very narrow and partisan path that I had thought would create a stronger and better world. My 20-year-old self, was very self-assured, self-possessed, but dogmatic, and self-righteous.
In other words, I was 20. With an entire life in front of me. Never really having had to endure hardship, never having had to deal with a sick child, financial difficulties, or society’s derision. For at 20 who thinks that hard, sometimes terrible realities and choices, will ever befall you? Who thinks that they will have to suffer or watch those they love suffer immeasurably? At 20 you see the storybook picture of the world in which you will inhabit, and how that land just over the rainbow will look. At 20 to paraphrase a treif ideal- the world is your oyster.
At 20 you do not think about the compromises that life requires you to make. You do not think about the choices that happen to the average person, or how sometimes life just can, and does, wear a person down. You are in effect quite the snob about what you believe, and look quite askance at anyone who doesn’t follow your parochial ideals.
So as I thought and thought, I realized, that my 20 year old self would not like me very much today. She would see me as a sell out, a reactionary, and a spiritual failure. But then I think a little longer and I realize, that I, as a person with almost 6 decades of life, would not like my 20-year-old self if I met me today either.
Oh, I would like the fact that my 20-year-old self believed in a charitable way of life, and that she wanted to help and support the Jewish people. I would like that she also looked outside her community to do good deeds and worked at making the world a better place. I would like that she would think that anything, absolutely anything was possible.
But I would definitely not like the condescension, the self-righteous attitude she had towards those who thought spiritually and politically differently than she. And I definitely would not like how she dealt with those who breached the walls of her ideals. For 20-year-olds can be very dismissive rather than inclusive. And instead of trying to reach out, to understand another person’s viewpoint, a 20-year-old laughs at those she thinks are beyond the pale, forgets about them, and excludes them.
On the one hand though, society most certainly needs 20-year-olds. We need their optimism. Society needs their bravado. We need the 20-year-old ignorance that somethings simply cannot be done and cannot be changed. For if it were not for that refusal to see reality, society would never grow, it would never change, and we would never move toward a better world.
But on the other hand, when I look back at that 20-year-old me I realize that I could have accomplished a lot more had I used sugar instead of vinegar. One thing that I learned in the decades since my youth is that if people change, its because life changes them. That they deal with issues, and challenges you never think of. And for most 20 -year-olds in the first world at least, they know of , but do not associate with, the terrible challenges that exist in life, until these challenges are laid at their doorstep.
There are reasons that people live the life they do, and make the choices they make. At times, those choices are thrust upon them, reality hits you like a ton of bricks you never saw coming. Your priorities change, and your world sometimes gets forever smaller, and smaller, and smaller. You perhaps learn, that before you can save the world, you need to first save those you love, including yourself.
I think when we look back, we are not meant to necessarily like who we were at 20, and I am not sure that our 20-year-old selves are meant to like who we become at 60. We may not loose our ideals, or desire to do good in this world, but decades can and do change people. They say life is wasted on the young, or “if I knew then what I knew know, how I would do things so differently.” But we are not meant to be any different than we were when we were 20, nor who we are at 60. Life does have a way of changing your path.
Maybe that is the lesson I learned this past Yom Kippur. I see my own growth as a person. I see the foibles of my youth, and the regrets they cause. I see that I cannot change the past, but can move towards the future knowing that I have grown into a more generous person simply because I understand something 20-year-old me did not. I understand that each individual is really a descent person trying to live a good and full life, and we all simply do the best we can.