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May You Stay Forever Young

Guest Post by Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Senior Rabbi, Westchester Reform Temple

Three generations of my family – may we all remain forever young!

A version of this piece appeared on Rabbi Blake's blog, 11/14/21. It is published here with his permission.



Every year, when the days grow short and the temperatures drop low, I find myself meditating on the theme of aging. These thoughts make me sigh especially when, as happened yet again at a recent wedding, three separate individuals came up to me and mentioned that, in their opinion, I did not look old enough to be a rabbi.


Looking "too young" is, of course, the textbook definition of a "good problem to have," and it’s one to which I am so long accustomed that it hardly registers anymore. After conducting my first Bar Mitzvah 21 years ago when I actually was a baby rabbi, I stopped by the reception in the social hall. I was still wearing my somber black clerical robe, ordered a glass of wine, and was promptly carded by the bartender.


I can't be sure whether the source of this seemingly perennial issue in my life should be attributed to good luck, good genes, good habits, or some combination thereof, but I have come to regard it as a blessing and not a curse. And whenever I hear Bob Dylan sing these words:


May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung

And may you stay

Forever young


I think to myself, "Bob, my good friend, I’ve got you covered."


Playing with my with nephews, Jakey and Samson

"Forever Young" contains a Biblical image, a ladder to the stars, which comes from the story of Jacob who dreamed of such a ladder.


Back in 1973 the year I was born Dylan recorded “Forever Young” for another Jakob, his 4-year-old son. Like the ladder it references, the song’s journey is long and storied. My favorite anecdote is that Howard Cosell recited its lyrics, on-air, when Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight crown for the third time in September 1978, declaiming, as only Howard Cosell could:


"May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift, may you have a strong foundation, when the winds of changes shift," and so on.


I’ve been combing my spiritual tradition for some applicable wisdom on how to stay "forever young." In the course of my research, I encountered the famous controversy on the Jewish view of when life begins. It is said that in Judaism, a fetus is not considered viable until after it graduates from medical school.


Embedded in this old joke is a deeper truth about the pain of growing up and the desire to keep our children "forever young." Many in our congregation over the past year have shared with me how sweet it felt, at the height of the pandemic, to turn their home into a compound for their grown children to come back home and camp out for weeks or even months, often with significant others and spouses and young children of their own in-tow. Lighting in a bottle it was a time that felt, even for an instant, like the old days before the kids became grown-ups with grown-up-sized responsibilities and problems.


But even in these strange circumstances, which have warped our perception of time and blurred the boundaries between home and office, between family nuclear and extended, a time did come for the fantasy to end. Offices and schools reopened, travel resumed, renovations reached completion, and homes that started out feeling spacious began to feel cramped.


Robert Frost put it this way: "Nothing gold can stay."


Someone once asked playwright George Bernard Shaw what, in his opinion, is the most beautiful thing in this world. "Youth," he replied, "is the most beautiful thing in this world and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!" It's a quip that has come down to us in condensed form as "Youth is wasted on the young." And perhaps it is so because we seem to appreciate our youth only when it has fled. It should come as no surprise that so many of us grown-ups spend so much of our time and psychic energy and money chasing fountains of youth.


The desire to stay forever young keeps hair colorists, plastic surgeons, and sports car dealers gainfully employed. And yet, most of us understand that none of these will keep us vital on the inside, at the soul-level, where it really counts.


And that, I think, is what Dylan may have had in mind. He is not praying for the impossible to remain wrinkle-free, with shiny hair and sturdy bones so much as he is inviting us to consider a life of spiritual vitality. A soul that remains youthful even as the years go by.

The desire to stay forever young keeps hair colorists, plastic surgeons, and sports car dealers gainfully employed. And yet, most of us understand that none of these will keep us vital on the inside, at the soul-level, where it really counts.

My spiritual heritage proposes a means by which this can be achieved, a way to "stay forever young," at least at the soul level, even when we are chronologically or biologically old. It’s a simple thing, really: We must retain the capacity to dream, especially as we age.


The Prophet Joel describes how the spirit of God works in the world: "The old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions” (Joel 2:28).


In other words, our dreams are a way of keeping God alive within us: the uniquely human spark of creativity, the uniquely human capacity for hope and possibility, the ability to imagine, to visualize a future of the way things ought to be (instead of the way they are).


And if you can do that, I promise you, you may indeed stay…forever young.

 

Jonathan Blake is Senior Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple (WRT) in Scarsdale, New York. He currently serves on the Boards of UJA-NY and Zioness, as the Co-Chair of the Annual Giving Campaign of the CCAR, and on the President’s Rabbinic Council of HUC-JIR. He is also a chaplain of the Police and Fire Departments of the Village of Scarsdale.


A graduate of Amherst College (1995) and ordained from Hebrew Union College (2000), he has been recognized for his contributions to Jewish life through his teaching, preaching, writing, and media appearances. Rabbi Blake is a prominent commentator on Judaism and spiritual life. He has appeared in The New York Times, GQ Magazine, the documentary films 51 Birch Street and 112 Weddings, and has authored numerous essays and articles for print and online publications. He regularly shares reflections on his blog, and as a host of the podcasts Everything is Connected and The Clergy Pod.