In 1969 Herbert Weiner, a Reform Rabbi who was generations ahead of his time, published 9½ Mystics: The Kabbalah Today. It won the National Jewish Book Award, and influenced countless American Jews including rabbis and future rabbis (yours included), introducing them to the Jewish mystical tradition.
The book is a travelogue of sorts. Weiner visits, studies with, and interviews Jewish spiritual luminaries of his day, and recounts the teachings of other luminaries long gone. I mention the book here—in the context of our year of rabbinic transition at Union Temple—for a teaching in the book which Weiner brings from the influential eighteenth century Chassidic Master Reb Nachman of Bratslav. Reb Nachman was a gifted storyteller, a writer of mystical parables, and a composer of wordless melodies (nigguns). He had a favorite saying:
“It is forbidden to be old!”
What ever could that possibly mean, especially to us, the inheritors, congregational leaders, religious school parents, and members of a 170-year-old temple, the oldest in Brooklyn?!
The following thoughts come to mind:
We are not old when we do new things. Yes, it’s comforting to do things that are comfortable. But when we do new things—although we can feel a bit unsure, a bit out of our depth—we feel energized, alive, even exhilarated, because we are recapitulating the experience of youth when everything was new, every path unexplored.
We are not old when we do old things in new ways. The rabbis used to say that we should strive to do familiar things in unfamiliar ways. If we are accustomed to wearing one sort of garment, we should on occasion wear another sort of garment. Now, they were talking about the Shabbat, when we are trying to see the world differently than during the week. But this practice can be applied to the everyday as well. Doing old things in new ways reveals more to us than just a new insight into whatever it is we are doing. It reveals new insights into ourselves and into our capacity to grow and to change.
We are not old when we surround ourselves with young people, and see the world through their eyes. At one point during our Union Temple Sukkot services in September, I was seated in the “pews” next to a three-year-old girl, who was diligently tracing with her finger every line of the prayer we were reading—to her mother’s delight. Now, I don’t know this for sure, but I don’t think this child is even reading English yet! But there she was, emulating her parents’ reading style. Somehow, she has already learned that grown-up behavior involves reading. Watching her, I was reminded of how important it is to slow down, to pay attention to each and every word on the page; and to remember that we always have a choice about the level of attention we are bringing to whatever it is that we are doing. I was reminded of the joy of setting a good example for our children; reminded that that alone should motivate us to reclaim this moment which we find ourselves in as a nation by good example.
To be sure, Union Temple has been through many changes in 170 years—liturgically, geographically, denominationally. And now we’re in the midst of another change, as we search for our new rabbi, who is hopefully right now searching for us as well. We’ve already seen that we can do things differently—inviting scores of people up for a group Aliyah on Rosh Hashanah, for instance—and Union Temple can still “feel” like Union Temple. Maybe we are learning something of what Reb Nachman meant when he taught “It is forbidden to be old.”