Growing up is hard to do. You can Google those words and spend an entire day reading about it. Most entries focus on the millennials, who, presumably, still have to do the growing. The idea that the rest of us have grown up, however, may come as a surprise to millions who are much older than the millennials but who wonder regularly if they’ve mastered the thing. I’m over 70 but still joke about not knowing what I want to be when I grow up; my friends (sometimes even older) laugh knowingly. I am, apparently, on to something.
A recent Clark University poll describes the problem as economic. “Emerging adults” (age 21-29) have huge student loans but are often still in school; they work but have uncertain career paths. If growing up means independence, and if independence requires financial security, growing up is certainly harder to do now than it was a generation ago.
But what about those aging baby boomers (and older) whose finances are in order but who think they are still growing up? What counts as “becoming an adult”?
The Jewish account of growing up arises this week as we complete the Book of Genesis. Genesis is our metaphoric childhood; its final reading marks the transition into Exodus, the book where we come of age. The reading features a dying Jacob, gathering his children to review their past and future.
Appropriately, the accompanying haftara (from I Kings) pictures a dying King David instructing his son Solomon in the art of growing up. The passage reads, at first, like a scene from The Godfather, with David standing in for an aging Vito Corleone. Most of the monologue is the king’s political run-through of family members: Barzillai the Gileadite is on our side, David counsels, but don’t trust Joab or Shimi ben Gera; they are to be (in mob-talk) “whacked.”
Unsurprisingly, commentators largely ignore this seedy side of the conversation, relative to David’s positive advice: “Be a grown-up.” The Hebrew for “grown-up” — ish — means “man,” but there is nothing sexist about the advice. Grown-ups, says Redak (Rabbi David Kimhi, 1160–1235), govern themselves by controlling their impulses — as in Numbers 13:3, which calls people “grown-ups” when they act in ways that earn them honor and the right to be invested with leadership. Independence is not a question of finances, but of sound and honorable judgment.
And how do you achieve independence of judgment? Through study, of course — learning what God wants. “Walk in God’s ways,” David explains, “observing God’s decrees, commandments, ordinances, and testimonies.” Redak and Metzudat David (Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Zimra, 15th-16th centuries) identify each of these God-given bodies of instruction as its own category of thought and behavior requiring mastery. We should think of it as education for character, a far cry from higher education that cares only about how to get ahead and achieve financial reward. We need that utilitarian education too, but it should not be confused with growing up.
Most important, the commentaries insist that this character formation spill over into all aspects of life. “Walking in God’s ways,” makes us kind and merciful. The “commandments” (mitzvot) govern relationships between one person and another (bein adam l’havero). The “ordinances” reflect relationships between an individual and God (bein adam lamakom). Such wisdom, moreover, informs “all that we do, whatever we turn to.”
We know we are grown up only when we have matured in character to know what is right, what God wants of us, and what, therefore, we should want ourselves.