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Turning 30

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Boruch Leff

As one young man leaves his 20s behind, idealism gives way to practicality. Almost.

"If at age 20 you are not a Communist then you have no heart. If at age 30 you are not a Capitalist then you have no brains." (George Bernard Shaw)

I first heard this when I was age 21 trying to change "the system." The lecture group at the college I attended was too large and did not meet as often as I felt necessary. While in full stride, complete with petitions in my hand, an older student said, "I'll sign the petition but nothing's gonna come of it."

"What do you mean?" I replied, "It is so logical and easy to implement. I am certain the university president will have to agree!"

"Alright," he shot back, "Time will tell. But just remember what George Bernard Shaw said and realize that you can't change the world."

The bomb hit at that moment and its impact has never quite ceased. This quote has haunted me since then. What could it really mean? If you think communism is right, why wouldn't you stick with it?

I recently celebrated my 30th birthday, "the big 3-0." I now see clearly the truth of Shaw's statement. I initially learned this idea through Torah study; the kabbalist Nachmanides explains that all the world's wisdom can be found in the Torah. Afterwards, I learned this idea through life experience.


We are all familiar with the biblical story of Joseph. In a dramatic turnaround, Joseph is transformed from jailed prisoner to prime minister of Egypt in a matter of hours. The Torah goes out of its way to tell us that Joseph was 30 years old when he began to rule over Egypt (Genesis 41:46). Why is this significant for us to know?

The famous 12th century commentator Rashbam explains that at age 30 one is "worthy of leadership." Interestingly, the minimum age to run for U.S. Congress is also 30. But what is so significant about being thirty-something and being ready to lead?

Age 30 is a moment of truth when certain realities of life firmly take hold.

I found the answer in a most unlikely place-studying the laws of Rosh Hashana. The Code of Jewish Law (O.C. 581:1) instructs congregations to seek certain qualities when choosing a cantor to lead the services on the High Holidays. One of these qualities is that he should be at least 30 years old. Why? The Mishna Brura explains that it is because a 30-year-old is humble and broken hearted, and can thus sincerely "pray from the heart."

It would seem that the Torah understands age 30 as a "moment of truth" when certain realities of life firmly take hold, and it is only through the acquisition of these realities that one can be a leader -- whether in public life or in prayer. What might these realities be?


When I was 20, the world was an open book. I felt as if I could do anything and accomplish everything, while living on nothing. I would become a world-renowned personality -- educating and inspiring, leading and loving -- all without struggle.

Now that I have lived through the 20s decade and had many eye-opening experiences -- jobs that brought lots of surprises, relationships that were difficult to foster and maintain, and neighbors that were a source of friction -- I have become less idealistic about the world than I once was.

I notice that most people do not feel as if they are maximizing their potential.

In many ways, my hopes and dreams of my 20s never materialized, and it is difficult to see when and if they ever will. I notice there are not so many people in the world that have the dream job, and most people do not feel as if they are maximizing their potential.

In short, things don't usually work out in life the way you thought and hoped they would.


As I reflect on this, I am indeed somewhat heart-broken and humbled. I was living now as a capitalist, a realist, as Shaw remarked. My communist days, my idealistic days, had ended for the most part.

But then it dawned on me. Must I entirely abandon my communism? Communism is a great idea and dream, taking care of all members of society without class envy, but it is impractical. True, you can't implement all your dreams; they may be impractical. But some of them could probably work.

As my birthday hit and I was pondering these thoughts, God sent a messenger to guide me. I bumped into a friend who said, "I just saw the greatest quote: 'If your memories exceed your dreams, the end is near.’"

I have made a birthday resolution. I will still be a dreamer, but a more realistic dreamer.

So I have made a birthday resolution. I will still be a dreamer, but a more realistic dreamer. As a 30-year-old, I am now "worthy of leadership." I can be wise and practical and not try to implement a hopeless fantasy scheme. I am humble and broken-hearted enough to know how to let go of senseless dreams.

Indeed, the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 5:26) declares: "At age 30, one receives strength." This is the strength of character needed to pursue life's goals. The 20s process of trial and error leads to a more secure decade of the 30s, when a person is focused on true talents, pursuable goals, and genuine accomplishments.

The old cliche is true: A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none. The 20s are the training ground to become a jack-of-all-trades. The 30s is the time to focus and master those talents that can be applied in practical directions.

Yes, George Bernard Shaw, how right you were. But I'll always be a bit of a communist!


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