Redefine Yourself at Midlife

Redefine Yourself at Midlife

Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler

I turn 49 in a few months. I heard that’s my personal jubilee year. What is that, exactly?

Rabbi Rami: Leviticus chapter 25 says that every 49 years, all property is returned to its original owners, all debts are canceled, all slaves are freed, and all farmland lays fallow. Apply this to your personal life: For 49 years you’ve struggled to be the person others said you should be. For 49 years you’ve done your best to be your best as your family, peer group, and society defined “best.” All that ends on your 49th birthday. Take this year to decide for yourself who you want to be. It won’t be easy, and it should be done carefully and with compassion for those who may not want to see you change. Seek guidance from a well-trained spiritual director to help you clarify your vision, and share your vision with those affected by it. Then, at 50, begin to make that vision your reality.

My mother has Alzheimer’s. She’s well cared for, and when I visit she’s friendly and we talk, but she doesn’t know I’m her daughter. I’m just “the nice girl who comes to visit.” I need my mom, and she isn’t that anymore. It hurts so badly I’m thinking about not visiting anymore. Is this horrible of me?

This may not be horrible of you, but it may be horrible for you. Your mom is offering you a chance to love for love’s sake. She is saying to you, “Can you be with me as I am and not as I was? Can you drop labels like ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ and simply share a moment with me freely, lovingly, for no other reason than the joy of doing so? Can we just be together rather than be someone together?” If you can say yes to your mom, I suspect you will find your visits worth continuing.

My friends and I have found a teacher we believe to be a true man of God. We’re talking about quitting our jobs and following him, but I have doubts. What do you think?

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus calls to two fishermen, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and they “immediately drop their nets and follow him” (4:19). This may be what you are called to do. On the other hand, another first-century rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, taught, “If you’re planting a sapling and people call to you saying, ‘Come quickly, the messiah is here,’ first finish planting and then go greet the messiah” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan 31b). If you have doubts, honor them. Investigate this teacher carefully. Take your time. Complete the planting you’re currently engaged in, and fulfill the obligations you have accrued. If he’s the real thing, he’ll be there for you when you’re ready for him. Whether you go or not, do your best to leave the world a better place for your having been born into it.

My infant son is very sick. My friends say God is visiting my sins upon my baby (Exodus 34:7). Can this be true? I haven’t done anything bad enough to warrant what my son is going through.

The Exodus passage tries to make sense out of what is often a senseless world. Since we don’t want a God who tortures innocent children for no reason, we provide God with a reason: the sins of the child’s parents. The truth is much simpler: horrors happen, and often for no reason at all. Love your baby, love your God, and think about changing friends.

When I look into the night sky, I ignore the stars and planets and see only God. What do you see?

I see the stars and planets and know they are God.

I believe in a good and all-powerful God, yet I keep wondering: Why is there so much evil in the world?

The problem you raise is called theodicy, and short of becoming an atheist, there are three basic ways to deal with it: limit God’s power, limit God’s morality, or change your definition of God.

You can limit God’s power by asserting that God values free will over divine power and therefore allows people the freedom to do evil. I find free will overrated. What would I lose if I had no free will and were programmed by God to do only what is right, good, and just? I wouldn’t know any different or feel any less human, and I wouldn’t complain about my incapacity to commit heinous crimes since committing such crimes would never occur to me. So limiting God’s power by asserting free will doesn’t satisfy me.

You can limit God’s goodness by saying that good and evil are human categories that have nothing to do with God. God isn’t immoral, but amoral. But do you really want an all-powerful amoral God? The Bible says, “Do not stand idle while another bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16). Shouldn’t the author of this commandment abide by it?

You can change your definition of God in many ways. Here’s mine: Rather than imagine a God who sides with good against evil, I imagine Isaiah’s God, who is the source of both (Isaiah 45:7). Rather than imagine a God who controls nature, I imagine Spinoza’s God, who is nature. Rather than split good and evil into opposing camps, I believe good goes with evil the way front goes with back: all opposites are interdependent parts of an all-inclusive whole (Ecclesiastes, chapter 3), and this whole is what I call God.

You need not accept my definition, of course. I’m simply saying if your definition of God leads to insolvable problems, don’t agonize over the problems. Change your definition of God.

An award-winning author, poet, and storyteller, Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s latest book is Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent.

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