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OK, Boomer – Hey Millennial: A Brief History of Entitlement

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

Sermon Shabbat Vayeitzei 5780

In spite of appearances, I can’t always pretend to be totally sane. Two weeks ago, as you may know, I played hooky on Shabbat morning and biked the 102 miles of the Tour de Tucson. Autumn and Niles led a great service in my absence, according to all accounts. The Tour raises substantial funds for local and national charities, and many of you were generous enough to sponsor my ride as a donation to Congregation Beit Simcha, and we are very grateful for your generosity to our dynamic young synagogue.

Riding 100 miles on a bicycle over the course of a morning and early afternoon is not the act of a normal person, and this marks the fourth year in a row I have done this. Mind you, a couple of thousand other less-than-sane people do this ride, too, and to be honest, while it’s not exactly easy it’s great fun. People who ride the Tour are almost universally gregarious, and chatting with those who ride the same pace I do and getting to know a few of them over the hours of cycling is one of the great perks of this experience. You meet nice people in all kinds of places, and one of those definitely happens to be on a bicycle circling the entirety of the Tucson metropolitan area.

The Tour begins and ends downtown in Armory Park, and there was a great moment when I finished the ride. Everyone who completes the Tour receives a medal, as though we won the Olympics or something. It’s nice to get one of these, a sort of badge of honor, or of mild insanity, and they are awarded based on how long it takes you. There are professional riders who race the distance in under 5 hours; they get a platinum medal. If you complete the 102 miles in more than 5 but under 6 hours you get a gold medal. If you finish in more than 6 hours but less than 9 hours you get a silver medal; if you finish between 9 and 10 hours you receive bronze.

For four straight years I’ve ridden the 100 miles in a little over six hours, and no matter how much I train or how hard I try I seem to never get any faster, so I always get a silver medal.

This year when I finished I went over to the silver medal table, showed them my time, and received my silver medal. But as I walked by the gold medal table a volunteer worker called out, “Do you want your gold medal?”

And I said, “I want one, but I didn’t earn it.”

And the worker instantly said, “Oh, you must be a millennial.”

Which was pretty darned funny. And also pretty darned unfair. Of course, the reputation of millennials, Gen-Xers and Gen-Zers among the Baby Boom Generation, and our elders, is of a large group of young people who have a spectacular sense of entitlement and don’t believe in doing hard work. You know, they were born into this world, and therefore believe they will automatically get into a good college, get straight A’s they do not deserve, get a good job and get promoted, whether or not they can actually do anything more productive than post on Instagram or Snapchat, watch TikTok videos or create their own self-absorbed YouTube channel. Of course, millennials have no ability to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time because they have to check their phones incessantly. And when they are taken to task for living narcissistic, lazy lives they just post “OK Boomer” as a universal put-down, rather than actually doing something useful.

I, myself, have groaned about the absent work ethic of this younger cohort who seem to be filled with the desire to take over the world—provided they can do it without ever breaking a sweat, or working in an environment that doesn’t provide free kombucha and ping-pong tables and wireless phone chargers.

Of course, some of you may recall that the Baby-Boom Generation, of which my contemporaries and I represent the tail end, was not exactly beloved of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations when we caromed into early adulthood and destroyed all societal standards of dress and behavior with long hair, blue jeans and rock music and—gasp—marijuana use. And I suspect that our parents’ generation scandalized their own parents with swing music, jitterbug dancing and Americanized slang. And probably their parents horrified their grandparents by doing radical things like immigrating to America and speaking English instead of Yiddish.

I started to wonder if this well-founded bias against a useless younger generation had ever existed in previous times, and to research that I opened the Babylonian Talmud, the great source of Jewish law and lore. And there I found in the Bavli in Berachot 35b, “Tzei ur’ei, shelo dorot harishonim k’dorot hachronim; Come and see that the latter generations are not like the former generations; rather these new generations are their inferiors.” That phrase is repeated twice in that section, and twice more in the tractate Gitin 81a. In both cases, it has to do with the skewed priorities and inferior dedication of the new generations when compared to their much-superior elders. That is, the old-timers were great, and the youngsters were second-rate in knowledge, dedication, commitment and plain old-fashioned grit.

Mind you, the Talmud was completed over 1500 years ago. A millennium and a half ago older people were kvetching about the inferiority of younger people. No doubt the older rabbis were scandalized by the lackluster scholarship of younger people who refused to memorize the entirety of Jewish law, insisting instead on using newfangled technology and writing it all down on high-tech parchment with quill pens. Entitled young people.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

For those who think that this millennial generation is pretty much useless and unwilling to work hard and spoiled rotten, about as entitled as any group of human beings since the aristocrats the French Revolution quite correctly guillotined, well—look in the mirror. I strongly suspect that you didn’t fulfill all the expectations of your parents’ generation, nor did they do the same for their parents’ generation, nor did your grandparents do it fully for their parents’ generation.

My own grandmother, my Bubbie Irma, was born in 1890, in Victorian times, and she retained many of the attitudes typical of that prim and proper era all the way up until her death in 1990 at the ripe old age of 100. She was truly a 19th century woman in many ways: she was constantly scandalized by the improper grammar, written and spoken, of nearly everyone using the English language in the 20th century. She thought much of popular culture unspeakably crude, inappropriate and vulgar. She never could accept rock music as, well, music. She mourned the modern deterioration of standards she revered.

But although a Victorian in spirit, she was also incredibly bright and well-read and a true realist, able to understand new concepts and technology and to marvel at the positive changes in the world. My Bubbie had a poem that she kept on the wall in her office, which has become a favorite of mine as well. It was ascribed to anonymous, as many fine works are, and it was called, “Going to the dogs.”

My granddad, viewing earth's worn cogs,

Said things were going to the dogs;

His granddad in his house of logs,

Said things were going to the dogs;

His granddad in the Flemish bogs.

Said things were going to the dogs;

His granddad in his old skin togs,

Said things were going to the dogs;

There's one thing that I have to state –

The dogs have had a good long wait.

I strongly suspect that this world won’t fall apart when millennials and Gen-Xers and Gen-Zers take it over, as they in fact already are beginning to do. And the apparent sense of entitlement they manifest is quite likely no worse than the arrogance of youth in every up-and-coming generation, going back to the Talmud—and much farther back than that.

If you want the best example of youthful, millennial-style entitlement, look no further than the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayeitzei. Young Jacob has tricked his older twin brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing and, never having experienced want or lack in his entire life, now finds himself forced to flee with nothing. He puts his head on a rock—no more Memory Foam pillows for him—and has a dream of that famous Stairway to Heaven with angels on it, God at the top assuring him that all will be well and he will have a great future. The irritating young man awakens and makes a very millennial-sort-of vow: if God will keep me safe, and if God will bring me home and if God will provide me with clothing and shoes and food and protection, then by golly I will worship God, and I will even give God a tithe, 10% back of all the riches that God provides for me. You know, the agent’s commission.

It’s chutzpah all right, deserving of any millennial asking for a raise before he has worked a day in his life—and when he gets it asking for more vacation. And yet, the story turns out quite differently than we might expect. Jacob ends up having to work very hard for everything he gets from then on, and becoming the real father of our people. He has to work incredibly hard to establish is legacy, at times literally wrestling his way to success.

So, my friends, don't worry so much about the deterioration of society, of those smarmy brats with their weird hair and odd habits and awful music and entitlement complexes and complete lack of initiative or follow-through. In truth, they will turn out to be no worse than we have been, and possibly better. Just like every generation before them has.

As the Talmud says, shelo dorot harishonim k’dorot hachronim; the latter generations are not like the former generations. That’s so, but unlike the way that phrase is used, that’s actually how it’s supposed to be. With God’s help—they may need a lot of it—these millennial jokers will turn out just fine. They’ll learn how to work hard and take initiative, and they might even fix the parts of this world that our generations have fouled up.

Stranger things have happened. Again and again. In every generation.

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