I never quite feel like I’m the right age. My congregants consistently tell me that I’m too young to be a rabbi.
When I watched the standup comedian Robert Klein began one of his sets with a song about colonoscopies (below), I also felt be a bit out of place. When the rest of the audience roared with laughter, I knew I fell squarely into the wrong demographic for the show. Sure enough, jokes about erectile dysfunction, enlarged prostates, and memory lapses commenced, all with a smattering of Yiddish. The audience of alter kakers (Yiddish for “old farts”) loved it. I got a few laughs out of the deal. My wife and our friends enjoyed laughing at my laughter.
At a wedding a couple of years ago, as I walked down the aisle between an endless number of white roses and tea lights, an older man in the crowd said, in a loud stage whisper, “That’s the rabbi?! He looks more like a bar mitzvah boy!” Along the same lines, nearly every week, the great aunt of the bar mitzvah boy comes up to tell me how young I am… but that she nevertheless, “enjoyed the service.” Needless to say, I’ve learned to take these sorts of comments in stride.
To a certain extent, for society to function properly, age does matter. The ancient rabbis taught that Jews progress through the years of our lives pursuing different goals at each step. In the Talmudic collection of proverbs and aphorisms called Ethics of the Fathers, the rabbis taught: “Five years is the age for the study of Torah. Ten, for the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the mitzvot (commandments). Fifteen, for the study of Talmud. Eighteen, for marriage. Twenty, to pursue [a livelihood]. Thirty, for strength. Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, for wisdom. Seventy, for elderliness. Eighty, for power..” (Pirke Avot, 5:22) In other words, our personal goals and our role in society shifts as we age. Understanding our place in the community helps to ensure its continuity and proper function.
So, are we to conform to society’s expectations and play the part that our age dictates? Or, should we behave and interact with the world according to how we feel on the inside, our mental age, if you will? I think that the answer is “both” – and “neither.” Within each of us reside different personality traits, different philosophies, different modes of behavior, different approaches to life -– different mental ages. Which of those traits –- or ages –- we express in any given situation should result from the meeting between who we are and the context in which we find ourselves. We may feel very casual and laid back on the inside. Nevertheless, we should not wear torn blue jeans and a sweatshirt to a funeral. On the other hand, when we meet new people we need to build our relationships based on who we are on the inside, not only on the formal rules of social etiquette. We are social creatures so we ought to express our true selves through the prism of any given social context.
“I’m going to finish up now because I know you all need to get home to pay the babysitters,” Klein said to uproarious laughter from the audience, most of whom had not paid a babysitter in decades. We did, on the other hand, need to get home to pay the babysitter. I’m glad that we saw Robert Klein on Saturday night. My friends and I will now be able to laugh about how out of place we were for years to come. We’ll laugh about it until -– God willing –- we’ll be the alter kakers laughing about enlarged prostates and colonoscopies.