Many social and psychological researchers describe a modern phenomenon known as extended (or prolonged) adolescence. In classical psychology, adolescence is the stage immediately prior to Young Adulthood, and includes ages 11-18. Today, we consider the beginning of adolescence between the ages of 9-10, and we don’t really consider it over until around 26 years old. In fact, some researchers have proposed an additional (transitional) developmental stage between 18-26 called Emerging Adulthood.
I’m sure that there are plenty of factors impacting the extension of adolescence in our times. Adolescence is considered a period of identity formation, and many suggest that given the increasing complexity of modern life, it might take longer for people to form a truly stable identity as they move toward the ultimate goal of independence. This journey is modeled in the stories we begin to read this week in BaMidbar (called Numbers in English, but the literal translation is “In the wilderness”). The universal features of the journey from childhood to adulthood are strikingly depicted in the stories of this book.
Throughout cultures around the globe, the transition from childhood to maturity is marked by something called liminality, which refers to the middle phase of a ritual – participants are not children (pre-ritual) or adults (post-ritual), but rather they are something in between. It can be disorienting and ambiguous, and often includes temporary removal from the rest of the group. BaMidbar describes this phase of the journey as it chronicles 40 years of wandering through the desert.
The journey through adolescence is rarely straight or simple. It often includes wrestling with authority, rebellion, jealousy, fear, and social concern above and beyond that experienced in other phases. During this time “In the Wilderness,” the people have to probe and explore, facing some harsh consequences, all in the name of developing into the maturity the nation would require in order to inhabit Israel in relationship with the divine.
Given today’s extension of the adolescent phase, this process can be every bit as fraught as the metaphor of wandering endlessly through a desert wilderness might suggest. Rather than consider this phase something to be passed through, however, I would suggest that it is a crucial moment during which many lasting features of identity and personality are laid down. At Gesher, we are cognizant of the important role this period plays in the lives of our students, which is one of the reasons we send them to Israel during this time. We also ask them to engage in habits and skills that we believe are important parts of building the kinds of identities we all wish for our children.
Ultimately, however, we will have to release them into the wilderness in order for them to forge themselves in the strong, responsible, and committed Jewish adults we all know they can become.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,