Growing up really is hard to do. If you doubt it, just google those very words, and spend an entire day reading about it.
Most of the entries focus on the millennials, the people , presumably, who still have to do the growing. The idea that the rest of us have already grown up, however, may come as a surprise to millions of people who are much older than the millennials but who wonder regularly if they ever mastered the thing. I’m over 70 but still joke about not knowing for sure what I want to be when I grow up, and my friends (sometimes even older than I) laugh knowingly when I say that. I am, apparently, on to something.
A recent Clark University poll describes the problem of growing up as economic. “Emerging adults” (age 21-29, that is) 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 whose finances are in order but who think they are still growing up? We are always growing, aren’t we? What counts as “becoming an adult”?
The Jewish account of growing up arises this week, as Jews around the world complete the Book of Genesis. Genesis is our metaphoric childhood; its final reading marks the transition into Exodus, the biblical book where we come of age. The reading features a dying Jacob, gathering his children around him to review their past and future.
Appropriately, the accompanying prophetic reading (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 an aging Marlon Brando playing David. Most of the monologue is the king’s political run-through of family members: those whom Solomon can trust and those whom he cannot. Barzillai the Gileadite is a loyal soldier, David counsels. But don’t trust Joab or Shimi ben Gera; they are (in mob-talk) to be “whacked” – eliminated.
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 that follows. Grown-ups, says the medieval commentator Redak, 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 Metsudat David (another commentator) identify each of these God-given bodies of instruction as its own category of thought and behavior that requires mastery. We should think of it all as education for character, a far cry from educational goals today that care only about how to get ahead, make a living, 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 spills 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’chavero). The “ordinances” reflect relationships between an individual and God (bein adam lamakom). Such wisdom, moreover, informs “all that we do, whatever we turn to.”
Growing up is about an independence other than financial. Some business moguls never grow up; some grown-ups barely make a living.
We know we are grown up when we have matured in character to know what is right, what God wants of us, and what, therefore, we should want ourselves.