Breaking the Wheel of Time

By Levi Avraham Kesselman, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016

Chassidus addresses the most fundamental human needs, from the emotional to the psychological and the spiritual, including: finding happiness, inner peace, passion and alleviating anxiety, fear and other impediments.  The objective of this essay is to demonstrate how Chassidus provides, even for a secular person, powerful tools for personal transformation.  A practical demonstration of this claim will come by analyzing the implications for Strauss and Howe’s groundbreaking work[1] on the revolving cycle of generations in light of a talk given by the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe and a Chassidic treatise penned by his predecessor.

This essay will focus on understanding inter-generational dynamics.

In light of Chassidic teachings, it will be shown that the seemingly inevitable development of generational gaps between the young and old are neither inevitable, nor unsolvable; but rather, manageable obstacles when understood through the lens of Chassidic philosophy.  Once understood, the reader should be able to see that the reason that history seems to reinvent the wheel, is to allow us an opportunity break it once and for all.  All we need to do is to understand that these gaps are merely illusions created by the limitations of our own self-love.  This holds true whether the generation gap occurs because we failed to consider another’s perspective in our social lives, or in developing a product for sale, or in any activity which possesses periodicity.

Challenge: Can Chassidus be used to reconcile generational divisions?

Generational identities are caused by social disruptions.

What is a generational gap, and what causes it to be?  For the purpose of this essay the phrase ‘generational gap’ should be understood to be a tradition gap within a single society.  This gap represents a failure of a certain age cohort to identify with the social traditions and attitudes held by other coexisting cohorts.  According to Strauss and Howe (‘the Authors’), a gap occurs when there is a disruption in the transmission of a society’s values from one generation to the next.  For example, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, can be thought of as marking the gap between Generation X and Millennials.  Members of Generation X having had their social identities come to into full maturity before the event and Millennials having their identities shaped by its aftermath.

Generational theory seeks to explain recurring historical patterns.

The theory predicts that the disruptive event should create a reaction which ripples through a society until a new social equilibrium is reached.  It is entirely possible that in time a society could return to the chain of traditions it kept during the status quo ante, for example, the revival of traditional Judaism after the holocaust.  However, this is not necessarily the case, and the novelty brought by the Authors is to trace how the reaction to one disruption can produce a counter reaction which leads to a discernable pattern of boom and bust across the span of history.  This pattern is the generational cycle.  The theoretical proposition is that it becomes possible, given ones knowledge of the cycle, and periodic position in sequence and time, to forecast and prepare for the occurrence of future life-cycle events.

The Biblical Exodus has been held out as a paradigmatic example of a generational event.

The generational theory is a seductive one with practical ramifications, not just in forecasting challenges in our life-cycles, but also for studying market trends.  According to the Authors, human generations come in fours, each with its own characteristic temperament.  Using contemporary labels, the major demographic cohorts we see today: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z (for lack of a better term) form a complete tetrad of human generational experiences.  According to the theory, each of these generational cohorts is merely a species of a generational archetype.  In developing their archetypal exemplars the authors make use of biblical imagery.  The life cycles of the four generations of the Children of Israel present at the time of the Exodus from Egypt each provide a narrative arc that comes to be representative of each corresponding fourth generation in history.

  • Methodology: Identifying thematic liaisons between generational theory and Chabad literature for examination and application.

The Passover Seder provides a thematic liaison with generational theory by exploring the contemporary relevance of the Biblical Exodus.

This literary analogy to the Exodus story begs for a Chassidic explanation. Are these four exemplars merely incidental contrivances for illustrating the theory, or do they hint to the existence of a deeper level of reality that can be tapped into and benefitted from?  Not only can Chassidus explain why the Authors’ theory develops its structure, it can also further develop it into a practical framework for beneficial application.  The launching point for one such analysis will be a talk delivered by the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe (‘the Rebbe’) on the occasion of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the Exodus.  Those themes identified by the Rebbe which are germane to a discussion of the structural development of generational gaps will then be explored in light of the teachings of his predecessor (the ‘Previous Rebbe’) for practical application.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s analysis of the pattern of fours within the Passover Seder.

Anyone familiar with the Passover Seder, the Jewish holiday meal commemorating the Exodus, knows that a recurring thematic element is the number four.   There are four questions, four sons, and four cups of wine.  Is it a mere coincidence that the Authors’ survey of history revealed a four part pattern decodable to the Authors courtesy of a literary reference to the Exodus?  As explained above, a generational gap occurs in response to an event which challenges the continuity of a society’s traditional wisdom.  In a talk delivered by the Rebbe for the holiday[2], one comes away with the sense that the Seder meal is precisely Judaism’s answer to this phenomenon of the generational gap.  The word ‘seder’ itself denotes order, and the Rebbe’s goal is to investigate whether the traditional presentation of the Passover tetrads demonstrates a heretofore obscured pedagogical purpose.

First Theme: Group identity comes first in education.

The Rebbe’s investigation initially concentrates on the central theme of the Seder, education, and whether or not the techniques employed on this occasion are effective tools for accomplishing the goal of transmitting the meaning of the Exodus to the next generation of the Jewish people.  According to the Rebbe, the challenge is to understand why the first question the child brings to the Seder pertains to the observance of a mere custom, instead of pertaining to the seemingly more important biblical or rabbinical precepts.  His answer is that the first step in education must be instilling in the child an awareness of his or her distinctiveness as a member of the Jewish people, and this reflected primarily through the transmission of customs, which are noticed long before anything else.

Second Theme: Every individual is innately unique.

Before turning to his investigation of the four sons, the Rebbe digresses to explain an apparently superfluous statement brought in the course of the Seder.  Attributed to R. Eleazar ben Azaryah is the saying, “I am like a man of seventy years old, and yet I did not succeed in proving…”  For this message to make any sense, the first predicate must in fact be true and the second in fact false. However, as R. Eleazar was known to have been 18 years old when he made this statement, it calls for an explanation of the logical relationship between the predicates.  Why, if he merely had the physical appearance of a seventy year old, would it be exceptional for his colleagues to reject his scholarship?  The answer, according to Rebbe, is that the statement can be understood as meaning that spiritually he was 70 years old.  According to Chassidic teaching he was a reincarnation of the prophet Samuel who died at the age of 52, and therefore in disputes with his colleagues his previous life’s experiences are reckoned to account as an addition to his own.  As a result of this digression, the Rebbe brings out the point that not only is our individual wisdom a product of our own education and life’s experience, but also of our innate capabilities.

Third Theme: Unity is the end goal; and peer education is the means.

Finally turning to the pedagogical lesson of the four sons and the four cups, the Rebbe expounds upon the meaning of the four sons: the wise; the wicked; the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask, and provides a Chassidic explanation linking them to the four cups of wine.  The principle portion of the Hagadda, the story of the Exodus, is related over the second cup of wine, representative of the wicked son.  For the Rebbe, the interesting question is why this is so, and why the sons are presented in the order they are.  The Rebbe explains how the final benediction of the prayer, which Jews are required to say three times daily, that pleads, “Bless us, our father, all of us as one…” alludes to the ultimate goal of a final redemption through social unity.  For the Rebbe, the order of the sons is a necessary means for obtaining this ultimate end.  The Hagadda is addressed to the wicked son, who is situated next to the wise son to inform us that the former’s character can only be elevated by means of the latter’s involvement in his life.  In return, by redeeming the wicked son, the wise son himself acquires the experience needed to conquer the evil hidden within him; and the completeness of perspective to bring out of the remaining sons the realization that they too, in their own distinctive ways, are parts belonging to a greater whole which is deserving of redemption.

In Chabad literature the contemporary relevance of the Biblical Exodus pertains to group cohesion and continuity.

Imparting this profound understanding about social cohesion in the face of adversity to the next generation of Jews, would seem to be for the Rebbe the entire goal of the Seder.  When juxtaposed with the challenging journey from exile to redemption, the message becomes that despite our peculiarities and apparent differences, we are all on the journey together, and that our group identity is greater and more resilient than the sum of its parts. This message by the Rebbe shows that: in the face of social trauma unity can be taught, and redemption achieved; is a powerful and encouraging response to the apparent inevitability of Strauss and Howe’s generational cycle.

The characteristics of the four sons can be applied to the four part pattern of generational theory to provide a metaphor for transformative action.

Returning to the topic of the generational cycle, the generational sequence, as developed by the Authors, can be seen to correspond to the order of the four sons: Moses’ generation corresponding to the wise son; the wilderness generation corresponding to the wicked, Joshua’s to the simple; and the generation of children present to the son who does not know how to ask.  The Authors would identify these in our own day respectively as Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z.  With this insight, we can now evaluate from a Chassidic perspective how to fulfill the Rebbe’s directive of having the wise son or in this case, Baby Boomers, bring about an intergenerational reconciliation, by turning to a discourse of the Previous Rebbe, “The Principles of Education & Guidance.”[3] Interestingly, this discourse was penned when the sixth Rebbe was, like R. Eleazar, 18 years old, and reflects well the principle that wisdom is not just a product of our years on Earth.


Application: The wise son’s process for educating the others.

The Previous Rebbe delineated a set of principles to be systematically applied by educators.

In his discourse, the Previous Rebbe outlines seven principles for educators to use ‘to assess the potential of any pupil, objectively evaluate one’s own strengths, and use reward and punishment.’ The Previous Rebbe explains that the goal of an educator is to transform the ‘base and ignoble’ traits of the pupil, by eliminating ‘self-love’ first of all within himself.  He explains that pupils vary in four (surprise, surprise) differing respects: their general occupation; financial situation; habits; and place of residence.    Going on to explain how these environmental factors interact with the innate capabilities the soul, the sixth Rebbe devises that a key principle of education is to define what is suitable and unsuitable for a particular pupil.  He then brings the analogy of a craftsman examining a deficient work, and choosing a thoughtful and loving framework to accomplish the repair, for the work of the educator, the wise son.

The Previous Rebbe’s set of education principles can be applied to the metaphor to produce a concrete plan of action.

From the application of the Rebbe’s exposition of the pedagogical purpose of the four sons to the generational cycle, we can deduce that it is the mission of Baby Boomers to bring about social cohesion among society’s other generations by eliminating ‘self-love’ and defining what is suitable and unsuitable for the others based upon a wise (as defined by the principles laid by the Previous Rebbe) assessment of the others’ archetypes so that finally the prayer of “Bless us our Father, all of us as one…” will finally be answered.



The takeaway from this practical application of Chassidus is that wherever we find a generational gap occurring, it is not a disruptive force of nature that we need resign ourselves to, as Strauss and Howe’s theory would lead us to believe.  In the light of Chassidic thought, we can see that this is rather an opportunity to instill in ourselves an appreciation for our collective identity, as distinctive individuals working together as part of a greater whole.  This is done by eliminating our self-love in order to allow those traits corresponding to the wise son in each one of us to reveal the existence of an underlying force of unity in each other’s lives.


[1] Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (1991). Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: William Morrow & Company.

[2] Likutei Sichot: An Anthology of talks by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Vol. 3 (Sichos in English, 2010).