Dividends – Thoughts from Rabbi Jonathan Kendall

I retired from the rabbinate almost three years ago. (A terrible confession: I don’t attend worship services all that much.)

I am a dinosaur, a Jurassic Rabbi, and the Reform Judaism of today has pretty much left me far behind. Yes, I do receive requests to officiate at the occasional Bar or Bat Mitzvah, wedding or funeral – which I am usually pleased to accept. Friday nights and Saturdays are more apt to see me out with friends, cruising in the Bahamas (a wonderful friend with benefits) or reading a good book.

Last Friday night was a rare exception. The guest speaker at my Temple was a young woman in her third year at the Religious Action Center. She was our TYG’s president; I officiated at her Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation and with great pride, watched her grow. From an Eisendrath Fellow to a policy analyst, she has worked the length and breadth of the Reform Movement’s ethical landscape.

Rabbi Jonathan Kendall
Rabbi Jonathan Kendall

I must have been beaming throughout because after the service people told me that the ebullient smile never left my face. She hit every social justice meme and metric on the button and did so with passion, eloquence and panache. My delight in the moment was accentuated when our Temple’s president went to our amud and made the announcements during which she averred that she was present at this young woman’s coming of age. She recalled what was for me the denouement of every Bat or Bar Mitzvah.

Just before the Torah Service I would take every child to the steps of the Aron HaQodesh and speak to them of the historical significance of what was about to occur, the holiness of this endeavor, the fact that they were playing the role of Moses and standing at their own, personal Sinai. More than that, I asked them, in the presence of family and friends, to pledge to transmit this heritage of ours, this tradition of justice, fairness, generosity and above all else, to embrace the values that direct our peoplehood. With an affirmative response, we would continue the service. Fortunately, in almost 40 years I never had a kid say, “Let me get back to you on that.”

How do the above connect to Jewish Sacred Aging or the trials, tribulations, pleasures and satisfactions of boomerdom?

I’ll tell you.

Wherever life has led us professionally – into the noble professions or not – we are all teachers of a sort. Our students, first and foremost, are our children and grandchildren. Next in line are all the people who come within the orbit of our lives. Consciously or unconsciously, oblivious or sharply aware, we set examples with our words and deeds. And everyone we touch – positively and negatively – hears what we say and sees what we do and most often, even unwittingly, learns something. One need not be a Rabbi to craft a moral compass in a child or unleash ethical sensitivity in others.

Believe me, it doesn’t hurt to devote a healthy piece of your life to our people and the legacy that we enshrine, but not everyone can be a Rabbi. We of a certain age – when there is more behind than there is ahead – have some obligations to the generations following us. This has always been so. We are entering that phase of life through which our ancestors passed. Sometimes their righteousness was subtly delivered and sometimes it came with thunder. But if you haven’t started to think about these things, you must begin.

To invoke an over-used phrase, at the end of the day, each and every one of us should be positioned to collect some dividends – not of the monetary kind, but the ones that touch our hearts and souls. To raise a child (or grandchild) in the way that is right or to cultivate friends with an eye towards integrity and decency more often than not produces dividends of incalculable worth. The key to success is not in the grand or munificent gesture. It comes with a shared view of the world that is more about responsibilities than entitlements.

And the beauty of this: it is never too late to begin.

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