Last month, Rabbi Joshua Boettiger reflected on the tradition of younger people rising before the aged — as a gesture of respect for elders' longer earthly journey and associated wisdom.
Rabbi Joshua also captured a sad state of affairs: "... the traditional spiritual teachings held by Christianity and Judaism (and undoubtedly all the great religions) on how to hold the elderly in high esteem clearly are not being practiced in our current North American situation."
Rabbi Joshua, my dialogue partner and friend for five years, expresses here a true and sad reality.
What can we do to improve the spirit and practice of respect of younger people toward elders in our culture?
One specific aspect of this question keeps coming back to me: What can we in our "third act of life" (i.e., elders) do to own and exert our spiritual role and influence — not in a haughty, but in a humble, way?
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, founded the Jewish Renewal Movement and was a tenured faculty member at Temple University in Philadephia.
As he was approaching the age of 60, Reb Zalman entered a mysterious state of perplexity and uncertainty. Already a husband, a father, a professor, and the spiritual leader of a world-wide religious movement, Reb Zalman became depressed.
Reb Zalman determined to do a 40-day vision quest in the Southwest.
From that quest, he emerged determined to understand, embody, and express the potential grandeur of what he called "spiritual elderhood."
Reb Zalman wrote a book about aging and intentional spiritual eldering; it's called From Age-ing to Sage-ing. The title poses the core issue: Will we simply age — grow old, more feeble, less capable of basic life functions — or sage: grow wiser and become legacy-transmitters, mentors, and pioneers of spiritual wisdom?
When I read Reb Zalman's book, after hearing him speak with spiritual authority at Ashland's Havurah Shir Hadash in May 2013, I was captivated. I felt called to action.
Rather than merely age, I decided, I would "sage."
I set out by harvesting my life lessons (which Reb Zalman guides in the appendices of his book). I committed to mentoring young adults and to transmitting the wisdom and life lessons I had learned. Heeding Reb Zalman's invitation, I decided to continue to grow and even pioneer new ways of being fully human.
While the young are called to respect and revere the aged, we elders have a responsibility to grow into the "sages" that our youth and young adults desire to see and to emulate.
Two outstanding exemplars of this spiritual elderhood are Bernie Sanders, who vied for the U.S. presidency in 2016, and Maya Angelou, American poet laureate of blessed memory. Both figures attract many youth and young adults, because they model authentic spiritual elderhood.
Over time, Reb Zalman distilled the essence of spiritual elderhood and created an elder life-code. As "elder-sages," we can guide young people with Reb Zalman's sure principles.
Be humble and profoundly acknowledging of others.
Be curious about and interested in others.
Accept people and circumstances as they are.
Be whole and complete and help others to be the same.
Be committed to possibilities.
Create empowering and trusting relationships with others.
Encourage others to accomplish more than they think is possible.
Create results and be wary of self-deception.
Enroll others in the future.
Have committed conversations.
— Daniel Murphy fosters human flourishing through positive life coaching in Ashland and beyond.