YOUNG AT HEART

June 1st, 2023

I saw this wonderful quote from Robert C. Gallagher, author of the definitive biography of Ernie Davis (1939-1963), an inspirational sportsman who was the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy, the highest honor in American college football.

According to Gallagher, “change is inevitable—except from a vending machine.” His pithy observation underscores the tension between change, which always happens, and people who are rigid, like a vending machine: utterly impervious to change, even though it is happening all around.

This phenomenon is perceived as a generational issue, as George Orwell (1903-1950) noted in his 1945 review of Herbert Read’s essays: “Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”

Being ‘more intelligent’ is just a euphemism for wanting to break with cherished traditions of the past, while being ‘wiser’ frequently implies resistance to changes being implemented by the younger generation.

Countless psychological and sociological studies suggest that younger individuals are more receptive to change than older people. One of the key reasons is that younger people have more cognitive flexibility – a mental agility that allows a seamless transition between different concepts, or the ability to process multiple ideas simultaneously.

This skill is instrumental in adjusting to new scenarios or shifts in the environment, a capacity that often comes more naturally to the younger generation. Conversely, older individuals, with a longer history of deeply ingrained habits, beliefs, and routines, may face challenges when the need arises to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances.

Another significant factor is the affinity for risk-taking that is often the mark of younger individuals, a demographic that tends to display greater willingness to venture out of their comfort zone and explore the unfamiliar. This inclination to embrace risk inherently necessitates change and adaptability, an aspect that older generations grapple with. Often, older individuals completely reject risky ventures, preferring the familiarity of ‘the devil they know’ over the uncertainty of the unknown.

However, it is crucial to underscore that this young/old divide rule is not set in stone—there are plenty of older individuals who embrace change enthusiastically, while some young people are reluctant to make changes or do things differently. A host of factors, including, among others, personality, personal life experiences, cultural background, and educational attainment, can profoundly sway an individual’s openness to change.

Two remarkable figures who embraced significant change later in life were Ray Kroc (1902-1984) and the extremely colorful Colonel Harland Sanders (1890-1980), who, despite the military title, was never in the army.

Kroc, a milkshake machine salesman, was already in his fifties when he stumbled upon a fast-food restaurant run by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald. Intrigued by their unique “fast-food” business model, he opened the first franchise of McDonald’s at 52, and at 59, he bought out the McDonald brothers. This momentous change propelled McDonald’s to revolutionize what became known as the “fast-food industry” and turned Kroc into one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time.

Meanwhile, Colonel Sanders, the dynamic founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), didn’t franchise his company until he was 62. A vibrant personality, he capitalized on his honorary ‘Colonel’ title, bestowed on him by the state of Kentucky, to help market his unique recipe for fried chicken.

Sanders’ creation captured the world’s attention, turning KFC into a global brand and marking one of the greatest business success stories of all time. Both Kroc and Sanders are testament to the fact that age is no barrier to embracing change later in life and reaping its rewards.

Rabbi Yissocher Frand observes that Parshat Nasso contains a fascinating allusion to this concept, subtly embedded within the verses addressing the laws of Nazirites. The Nazirite vow encompasses three primary commitments: abstinence from wine and grape products, refraining from cutting one’s hair, and avoiding any contact with a corpse.

The last restriction parallels a similar prohibition placed on a Kohen Gadol (High Priest), who is forbidden from defiling himself through contact with the deceased. While regular priests are also prohibited from such contact, they are permitted to attend the funerals of immediate family members. In contrast, the Kohen Gadol faces an additional restriction—he is not allowed to defile himself even in the event of the passing of a close relative.

While the Nazirite and the Kohen Gadol share the same fundamental halacha in this aspect, an intriguing distinction arises when examining the Torah’s specific mention of relatives who may cause defilement. The Torah explicitly states that the Nazirite may not defile himself via “his [dead] father and mother, brother and his sister” (Num. 6:7).

On the other hand, when outlining the dead relatives forbidden to the Kohen Gadol, the Torah includes “son and daughter” in addition to father, mother, brother, and sister. Which raises the question: why does the Torah omit the mention of “son and daughter” for the Nazirite?

According to a theory proposed by Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986), the Nazirite vow was predominantly undertaken by unmarried young men. This thesis is partly based on a verse in Amos (2:11), where the prophet expresses regret that “your sons could have become prophets and your unmarried young men Nazirites.”

Other sources mention an ancient Jewish custom of celebrating young men’s birthdays by focusing on their spiritual growth through them becoming Nazirites, rather than having birthday parties. And the Talmud in Nedarim (9b) tells the story of a single young man who saw his attractive reflection in a pond, and became concerned about where his self-obsession might lead and resolved to become a Nazirite.

Rabbi Kamenetsky offers a compelling explanation as to why young unmarried men would take the Nazirite vow more than any other demographic. According to the Talmud, one source of inspiration for becoming a Nazirite was witnessing the dreadful consequences faced by a Sotah (adulterous wife). The sight of her gruesome demise would prompt people to reflect on their own lives and seek personal transformation. From this insight, Rabbi Kamenetsky concludes that the essence of the Nazirite vow revolves around the concept of change and self-improvement.

And, as we have seen, young people are more inclined to embrace change. Which is why, according to Rabbi Kamenetsky, unmarried young men were more likely to take on the Nazirite vow, as their youth and idealism made them open to self-reformation. The Torah’s omission of a Nazirite’s defilement via deceased sons or daughters reflects the general expectation that the Nazirite would be unmarried and therefore childless.

But the lesson of the ready-for-change Nazirite is not limited to the young. Just because a person is older doesn’t mean that they should consider change a burden, particularly if they encounter something that ought to make them see and do things differently. Ray Kroc, a humble milkshake machine salesman, stumbled upon the golden arches of opportunity later in life, and forged a path that would reshape the culinary landscape forever. Colonel Sanders, already in his 60s, transformed the simple act of frying chicken into a global phenomenon.

These visionary individuals exemplify the power of embracing change and seizing the possibilities that lie beyond the confines of convention. They did it in the material world – but the opportunities in the spiritual realm are so much more meaningful.

The message of the Nazirite transcends age; it teaches us that change is possible, and that a youthful mindset is essential. As George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) famously said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

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