Rabbi Shmuley Boteach reflects on lessons learned as he turns 55

To age is to gain wisdom.

 A PARENT kisses her child on the first day of school. (photo credit: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS)
A PARENT kisses her child on the first day of school.
(photo credit: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS)

I know that no one is supposed to admit their own age, but next week in New York City I’ll celebrate my 55th birthday, God willing.

To give it more substance, at the same party I will, next Tuesday, be launching my book Kosher Hate in a dialogue with New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.

The famous American writer and author of Fear of Flying, Erica Jong, wrote a “midlife memoir” called Fear of Fifty. As you’d expect, it talks about how we Americans have an insane fear of aging. Youth is glorified. Age is treated as a miserable illness.

Perhaps we should consider the alternative. To age is to live. Not to age is to be purged of the greatest blessing of all, life.

And to age is to gain wisdom.

 Happy birthday (credit: PIXABAY) Happy birthday (credit: PIXABAY)

And what have I learned in my half-century and five years on this earth, which have gone by in such a flicker? What are the 10 most important things that I’ve gleaned?

The first is that sins of omission are much greater than sins of commission.

There can be no doubt that I regret the bad things I’ve done. But far worse are the good things that I have not done.

Relationships, for example, are sometimes undone by sin in the relationship. But much more often, relationships die the sin of neglect. I have seen many husbands and wives bounce back from mistakes. But I have seen far more people slowly lose their vitality and passion for life because they lack purpose.

I’ve also learned that real character comes not from the quantity in our bank accounts but from the quality of our relationships. Sounds simple, I know. But it’s a truism we trample on every single day.

Our society uses money as a commodity by which to purchase self-esteem. The net result is that men and women spend their lives accumulating. But the biggest problem in the world today, and the one first identified in the Bible, is loneliness. All the money and status in the world will not make you feel appreciated for who you are so much as what you own. You only overcome loneliness when you’re in a relationship where you are loved and appreciated unconditionally.

The third thing I’ve learned is to confer dignity on all whom you meet. Try to make others feel important. Easier said than done but so amazingly rewarding. God gave each of us an infinite supply of dignity which we can sprinkle on others, like confetti thrown on a bride and groom at their wedding. By simply being attentive to people, valuing their opinion, expressing gratitude, we make others feel like they matter. Most of what we do in life is an attempt to make us feel significant. So if you crave it so much, grant that same gift to others as well. Give compliments. They’re free. So why be stingy? Make it sincere. Everyone has something to praise. Find it and offer it.

Next, is never to fear. That doesn’t mean we should live carelessly. But there is a difference between living in fear and living with caution. While fear is a hysterical response to an imagined threat, caution is simply a calculated reaction to a real danger. But get rid of the fear.

Also, learn to forgive.

This lesson is arguably the hardest of all. We all feel wronged by others, and forgiving is the most unnatural act of all. Why overlook the harm done to us by people, especially if they haven’t yet taken responsibility for what they’ve done? Because nursing grudges makes us old before our time, even if we’re far younger than 55.

As a parent, your job is to make your children always feel valued. It’s not to get them into Harvard. It’s not to inspire them to launch an Internet start-up. Stop thinking that your objective as a parent is to make your child a “success.”

I have seen so many children, successful on paper, who are still empty on the inside because they were never made to feel like they were loved unconditionally.

The job of a parent is to validate their children not through their doing but through their being. I love you because you are. There is nothing you can do that will ever make me love you more, and there is nothing you can do that will ever make me love you less.

And at 55, I’ve validated a choice I made long ago: to live for the Jewish people. The message is live for your nation, live for your country, live for your people. Live for a cause larger than yourself. Only when we connect with something eternal is our being lent a sense of the infinite.

I mention the Jewish people not only because I’m Jewish, but because my people has been imperiled throughout its existence. Israel’s very survival is threatened till today by genocidal enemies who surround it.

By fighting to defend Israel, we connect with millennia of our compatriots who have preceded us and who have made the Jewish people one of the most influential in history.

The same is true of fighting for America and all that it represents: freedom, liberty, human rights and a commitment to the infinite and equal value of every person.

Read history and know what has preceded you. Sounds unexpected, but I can tell you that my love of history has placed my existence, my daily trials, my constant challenges, in perspective. It lends me a sense of what human beings can ultimately contribute.

Honor your parents. Cherish your spouse. Another really difficult one. The people who give us the most love in life are often the ones who can give us the most pain. It’s almost inevitable in the parent-child relationship and the husband-wife partnership that love and pain will exist concurrently. But nothing tests our ability to appreciate and lend gratitude more than truly loving and respecting our parents and the partner with whom we share our lives. And nothing guarantees God’s blessing more than cherishing and showing loving gratitude to our soul mate.

Finally, the greatest lesson of all. I’ve learned that we must love God and serve him. This may come to you in different ways, either through formal religion or something more lived. But bring God into your life. Know that every day is a miracle. Stop sweating the small stuff and accept that there is a larger plan. Find your place in that plan. And throughout life never lose your sense of awe, majesty and wonder.

The writer has just completed Kosher Hate, which will be launched on November 16. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.