The Book of Numbers derives its name from multiple countings of the Israelites that occur in the book, which led the ancient rabbis to call it sefer pikudim or Book of Countings. In the first census, which comes at the very beginning of the book and this week’s Torah portion, God instructs Moses that only men age 20 and over are to be counted. According to the 13th century French commentator Hizkuni, this is because at age 20 “they are age-appropriate to go out in an army at war.” The simple explanation of the instruction is thus that the Israelites are preparing to enter the land of Canaan, and will likely have to fight, and therefore they need to know what forces they have.

But there is an additional dimension of the command that is particularly salient in the context of working with emerging adults. Why is age 20 appropriate? It is generally when human beings are at their physical peak–when they are full of energy and vitality, and when they have an adult mind to go along with their bodily attributes. Thus 20-year olds make ideal soldiers. But in peacetime, or when they are not compelled to go to war, 20-year olds must channel those same attributes into positive pursuits. And that isn’t necessarily simple.

In our culture, as to a lesser degree in the ancient world, being 20 years old means wrestling with one’s desires and one’s responsibilities, with working out what one’s life story has been and could be–what it means to be authentic to oneself. All of which can be a messy process. (In fact, I hope it is. As I tell my students, they are paying far too much money for college not to provoke at least one major identity crisis in four years.)

In 1970 the great (Jewish) literary critic Lionel Trilling delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, which were published as a book called Sincerity and Authenticity. Among many fascinating points, Trilling reminds his listeners of “the violent meanings which are explicity in the Greek ancestry of the word ‘authentic.’ Authenteo: To have full power over; also, to commit a murder. Authentes: not only a master and a doer, but also a perpetrator, a murderer, even a self-murderer, a suicide.” Sometimes, says Trilling, we forget “how ruthless an act” it can be to assert one’s individuality in the face of a culture that requires obedience and conformity.

While one cannot equate military service with the life of a young adult in college, the Torah’s point, with an assist from Trilling, is deeply resonant. The work of authenticity can be violent and scary. Many students find this resonance when they encounter Israeli soldiers for the first time on Birthright Israel trips. “They’re just like me,” is a frequent reaction. Yes and no. Not in the outward sense. But the inward struggles, the work of integrating mind, body, and heart, are common to the life of a soldier and the life of a person emerging into the world of adulthood. The task of the older generations is to be hospitable, to usher these young people into the world of adult responsibilities and channel their energy and creativity into pursuits that enrich life on the planet.

Shabbat shalom.

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