Translated and adapted for Beyond Teshuva by Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
Bar/bat Mitzvahs, graduations and weddings are fêted and enjoyed by all in attendance. But no one awaits these celebrations with as much edge-of-the-seat anticipation as the bnai Mitzvah, graduates and brides and grooms themselves. For these primary revelers the parties are much more than opportunities to let the good times roll, they are rites of passage. These landmark occasions formally confer upon them new levels of adulthood, autonomy and, that which we all yearn for most, societal and self respect. The maturity that we so crave is always about achieving independence and individuation. What some of us tend to forget is that this is just as true for emotional and spiritual maturation as it is for education and finances.
All immature beings (AKA children) depend on the adults of their species (usually parents) for their physical sustenance. What is unique about the human condition is that in our youth, we depend on our elders not just for food, hygiene and medical care, but for information and ethics as well. The child does not know how to “do things” or how to distinguish right from wrong. More than by instruction and evocation, the child absorbs practical and moral instruction through observation of behaviors demonstrated by its elders (hence the vital importance of role models). Aware of its own limitations, ignorance and dependence the child possesses an innate learning instinct that compels it to imitate its elders. Children become masters of the art of monkee-see-monkee-do by constantly seeking outside cues, validation and approval. This is the only mechanism available to them to determine whether or not what they are doing or failing to do is “good” and “right” (or cool and hip!)
During adolescence peer group pressure to conform is enormous. In this transitional stage from childhood to adulthood the peer group supplants parents and other elders as the external validation mechanism for behaviors and attitudes. It is as if the “tweener” adolescent was declaring to his parents and elders “I’m old enough to think independently of you but not quite old enough to go it totally alone. I’ll get by with a little help from my friends. (Get HIGH with a little help from my friends).”
Although nature endows us with physical maturity at the end of adolescence other forms of maturity are not a given. BTs, especially those who began their return a bit later in life, are acutely aware of this. So many discover Torah only after becoming adults. Classically, very early in the Teshuva process, realization dawns that Vis a Vis Torah-Wisdom (and the skills to acquire it) and Mitzvah performance (and a sense of proportion) they are, once again, babes-in-the-woods. Then, the nearly forgotten and long-dormant powerful craving for maturity reignites with the force of an active volcano.
As we are all growth-oriented and spiritual-maturity-craving here at Beyond Teshuva it is crucial that we recognize signs of arrested development and confront possible causes of plateuing. Many among us may still be spiritual children in adult bodies taking cues from societal norms and constantly seeking external validation from peer groups/social structures. Paradoxically, others may be stuck in a kind of spiritual/emotional twilight where, IDF vs. Hezbullah-like, maturity and immaturity do battle with inconclusive and even counterproductive results. For such people the compelling rush to individuation often causes them to ignore the sage advise of those who are more spiritually ripe (and, at times, of HaShem Himself) and yet, adolescent-like, their inner emotionally-needy-child craves social approval and dares not deviate one iota from the notions and norms of their friends, family and neighbors.
The sainted Piaszetsner Rebbe ZY”A H”YD teaches us that for healthy and steady spiritual growth we need to cultivate the maturity to think and feel independent of our peer group but to retain the humility and childlike wonder to continue taking cues from our spiritual elders. Our bodies plateau at around 20-23, but if we just afford it the right conditions for growth, our neshomahs (souls) can continue growing until our last nesheemah (breath)!