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God Squad: Wisdom and aging go hand-in-hand

‘Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:32)

This verse in Leviticus is the specific biblical verse that commands us to respect old people. Oddly, it comes immediately after the command by God in Leviticus 19:31 not to consult with wizards. The verse is simple and powerful and yet it does not tell us who is old. For that critical information we must wait until we read Psalm 90:10, “The days of our years are threescore years and 10; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”

I turned threescore years and 10 recently and, God willing, I am not flying off anywhere, except to Milwaukee to see Mom and then to NYC to listen to jazz with my wife Betty and some friends. However, by the biblical calculus of age, I am definitely old. But that biblical calculus of life expectancy is 3,000 years old, and back then they did not know about kale salads and wheatgrass smoothies.

Today, at 70, I do not even feel old. I am OK with the idea that despite my opinion I actually am old. It is all a point of view. I remember teaching a group of children in a synagogue in Madison, Wisconsin, when I was in my 20s. I asked the children in my class who they knew who was old. They pointed at me and said, “You are old!” Well, old or not yet old, here is one big life lesson that it has taken me 70 years to learn: One can be smart while young but one cannot be wise while young. Smart is knowing what is. Wise is knowing what matters. I have been smart since I was young. I have not become wise yet.

I have seen many smart young people, but I have never met a single wise young person. Most chess masters and mathematics geniuses are young. Most great religious and political leaders and philosophers are old. I think this is because intelligence is a natural attribute. Being smart is like being able to sing or paint or solve math problems, but wisdom is a hard-earned acquisition. To be smart, you just have to be born smart; but to be wise, you have to have lived and learned from failure and success. To be wise you need to have fallen in love and been betrayed. To be wise you need to have learned how to forgive and how to seek forgiveness. To be wise you need to have lost someone whom you loved more than life and you need to see a baby born for whom you would gladly give up your life. To be wise you need to not just see the imperfections in others but to deeply and freely forgive the imperfections of others. To be wise you need to understand in the depths of your soul that you are not alone and that you are indeed loved by God.

Intelligence is like a gift from God, but wisdom is like a gift to God. Intelligence is what you get and wisdom is what you give. People who cannot read or write can be deeply wise and people with a bunch of fancy degrees after their name can be deeply foolish (which as far as I can best determine is the opposite of being wise).

I know that I am not yet wise, but I know that I am trying. I know that of all the thousands of prayers I have uttered in my life, the only prayer that sticks in my soul is, “Thank you.”

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