The Pitfalls & Passions of Middle Age
At age 13, a Jew enters adulthood with bar or bat mitzvah. Our 60s bring Medicare, Social Security, and senior citizenship. But no formal public milestone marks the onset of middle age. No specific age defines it. In fact, middle age seems to have less to do with age than with the weighty responsibilities we associate with adulthood. You know you've reached it when career, family, a mortgage, even the need for life insurance transcend the unbridled freedoms of your youth. You also face startling truths: You've likely lived half your life or more, and your options have narrowed.
I had my own middle age epiphany last spring, while touring colleges with my son. David and I were standing among a group of other high school juniors and their parents, listening to an enthusiastic sophomore extol his school's virtues, when I flashbacked to when I, too, was a spirited tour guide shepherding students and their parents around campus. In those days I thought the parents were really old. Now, at age 48, I was one of them. When that young man's eyes met mine, I imagined how he saw me-a balding, graying man...really old.
I stood there, having this odd moment of clarity that rendered me oblivious to the virtues of Greek life and assorted meal plans. It hit me: Like my father before me, I was about to assume the proud responsibility to provide for my son's college education. I had become my father.
Most startling was the realization that the infinite array of possibilities that defined my youth were no longer within grasp. In my 20s I had contemplated dropping everything and moving to Israel, or returning to school. I hadn't cared about income; I needed very little when I was only supporting myself. But now, with a wife and two children to provide for, financial security has become a preeminent concern. I can no longer venture down just any path that appears intriguing.
And so, I have begun to ask myself the proverbial question posed by middle age: How can I renew passion in life, even as I feel bound by responsibility and limited by my years?
The Torah teaches us that as an adult, Moses settled in Midian, living sedately as a shepherd, husband, and father. One day, while out amongst his flock, he noticed a miracle: a fiery bush not consumed by
the flames. Out of that fire, God spoke to him, commanding him to return to Egypt to redeem his
enslaved Jewish brethren.
Perhaps that fire rekindled in Moses his own sense of purpose. Moses might have been a middle aged man ensconced in a too tranquil existence, but at that moment he was inspired to enter the most creative and exciting chapter of his life.
Most mortals are oblivious to such miracles. As a rabbi, I often encounter men and women who find middle age terrifying. It's as if they open their eyes one morning and suddenly realize they are trapped in unsatisfying marriages and unhappy careers. Some run from their responsibilities, even from loved ones, in pursuit of a recaptured youth. Others become mired in depression, miserable within their life choices yet unable to change course. Some numb themselves with alcohol or drugs, sexual escapades or gambling. Life becomes self-indulgent and destructive.
In navigating the emotional minefields associated with middle age, I have been guided by the wisdom of Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Writing about the symbolism of havdalah in his book, In God's Mirror: Reflections and Essays, he explains that this beautiful ceremony separating Shabbat from the new week takes place bein ha'shemashot, or "between the suns...between the setting of the sun and the appearance of the stars, at a time when faces and forms are indistinct. It takes place at twilight. 'Twilight,' Rabbi Yose declares, 'is as the twinkling of an eye, one entering and one departing, and it is impossible to determine it' (T.Shabbat 34b). But precisely at the time of indeterminancy, distinctions are made. 'Blessed art Thou...who distinguishes between holy and profane, between light and darkness.'"
Rabbi Schulweis goes on to explain that drawing distinctions need not involve setting preferences or bestowing favoritism. "Darkness is not the opponent of light...there is no day without night...In us darkness and light, holy and profane, altruism and selfishness cohere." At twilight the evening stars subtly illumine the darkening skyline; there is no stark distinction between light and darkness. So too I have come to see that middle age need not be the either/or choice of being free from responsibility or imprisoned by it. Freedom and responsibility, youthful optimism and mature wisdom, can complement and feed one another, each adding contentment, excitement, opportunity, and renewal to life. There are still horizons to trespass, passions to nourish us, and even responsibilities to invigorate us as we age-as Moses discovered at the burning bush.
As I approach my 50th birthday and complete my 22nd year as a rabbi, I understand that I must work hard to ensure that my rabbinate retains the powerful satisfaction I currently enjoy. Some might see another twenty years in the same job as a prison sentence. I choose to view it as an opportunity to pave new pathways that can keep my rabbinate engaging and exciting for both my congregation and for me.
My service at Temple Sinai has taught me that longevity offers its blessings. I have watched children become young adults. Performing their b'nai mitzvah ceremonies and then their weddings are professional joys that can only come with age. And there are new classes to teach and new societal ills to confront, bringing Reform Jewish values to the struggle.
Ongoing learning among colleagues and friends is also vital in shoring up a sense of professional satisfaction. Each summer, I spend two weeks of study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, which renews my passion for Torah, enhances my knowledge, sparks fresh ideas for sermons and classes, and nourishes my soul.
Perhaps most critically, I remain mindful that middle age can generate new challenges for marriages and families. Ruts, boredom, destructive patterns of alienating communication can set in after decades together. Yet every time a couple in my congregation asks for a public blessing to mark their 50th wedding anniversary, I draw inspiration from their enduring and still fresh love for one another. I am reminded of my own wonderful wife and family, and of my responsibility to nourish those relationships as the years pass and my children grow into adulthood.
In middle age our enemy is stasis, a passive approach to life that assumes that everything will remain, at its best, as it is. But stasis is poison; it saps us of vigor, hope, and happiness. It turns every day into a sentence to be endured, not lived.
It doesn't have to be that way. Even as I measure the weight of my responsibilities and the decades that have passed, even as I consider the limited time I might have left, I am never too old to make passionate choices and meaningful contributions.
Rabbi Michael White is spiritual leader of Temple Sinai of Roslyn in Roslyn Heights, New York.