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Thoughts on Reaching My Semi-Sesquicentennial

Our first patriarch, Abraham, was 75 years of age when he received his call to go forth from his homeland and travel to the land which God would show him.  His mission was just beginning as he set off for the unknown with promises of blessing.  God told him that he would be a blessing and that anyone who blessed him would be blessed and all those who cursed him would be cursed.  Through him all the families of the earth would find blessing.  This has become the mission of all those who call him our father, the founder of the three great monotheistic traditions, to be a blessing and to bring blessing to the world. Think of what the world might be like if all of Abraham’s children got together and worked on bringing blessing into the world.


Now that I have reached my 75th birthday on the day after New Years, it is natural to feel a sense of my mortality.  I’m entering the fourth quarter and it is a time to offer thanks for all the blessings I have been granted on one hand and on the other to seek ways that I can bring blessings to others, to the world, with whatever time is left to me.  Father Abraham discovered his mission at 75.  According to a teaching of the Slonimer Rebbe which has stuck with me over the years, everything in God’s creation has a purpose and each of us has a mission to fulfill in life.  The late rebbe claims that were it not for that mission we would have no reason to exist.  Our job is to figure out what our mission is and to go forth to fulfill it. It is a noble thought, but how do we find out what the mission is?  Nobody has given us that self-destructing cassette tape announcing our mission “should we choose to accept it.”  It should not be an impossible mission, but it is probably a challenging one, one that requires much reflection followed by implementation.  When we ask ourselves how can we hope to set out on a new mission or fulfill an old one at this stage of life, we remember Father Abraham who embarked on his mission at the same age.


In the Mishnah, in the tractate of Avot, better known as Pirke Avot, the Chapters of the Fathers or the Ethics of the Fathers, we find a passage known as the “ages of man.”  This passage does not appear in all manuscripts of the Mishnah.  Maimonides, for example, did not have this passage in his edition.  Nonetheless, it is very well known and often cited.  You will find Pirke Avot in most traditional prayerbooks after the Shabbat minchah service, since there is a tradition of studying a chapter of Pirke Avot each week between Passover and Shavuot, after mincha and before maariv and Havdalah, each shabbat.  Many continue to study this text throughout the rest of the summer until the High Holidays.


The teaching just before our text in Avot 5:23, is ascribed to Rabbi Yehudah ben Tema, so we assume that when the next Mishnah begins: “He used to say,” these too may be words of that sage.  What does he say? “At five years of age the study of Scripture; At ten the study of Mishnah; At thirteen subject to the commandments; At fifteen the study of Talmud; At eighteen the bridal canopy; At twenty for pursuit [of livelihood]; At thirty the peak of strength; At forty wisdom; At fifty able to give counsel; At sixty old age; At seventy fullness of years; At eighty the age of “strength”; At ninety a bent body; At one hundred, as good as dead and gone completely out of the world.”


Many see this as the source for celebrating bar mitzvahs at 13 and there are some Orthodox folks who get concerned if their 18-year-old has not found a bride yet.  When I reached age 60, “old age,” in Hebrew, “Ziknah,” I wrote a piece about it emphasizing that ziknah may not be just about age, but in our tradition, a zaken is used to refer to a wise sage, one to whom we turn for counsel, and to whom we show deference.  As the Torah says in Leviticus, “You shall rise before the ‘hoary head’ and show deference to the “zaken.”  This applies to elderly people regardless of their wisdom, Jewish or non-Jewish, including the sage whose wisdom has departed.


At seventy, the term used is not ziknah but seivah, roughly a synonym.  While ziknah emphasizes the beard, zakan, seivah points to the white hair.  In the Psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92, we sing each week “Tzaddik katamar yifrach, the righteous flourish like the date palm, and we go on to say, “Od y’nuvun  b’seivah,” “In old age, seivah, they will remain fruitful, still fresh and bountiful.”  Whether or not you feel that way at 70, our tradition urges us not to cast away our elders, but to recognize that they still have much to contribute, they remain fruitful even in old age, maybe even moreso.


Eighty is called the age of “strength” gevurah, based on another verse we read in P’sukei d’zimrah on Shabbat and festivals.  In that verse, the Psalmist tells us that “the years of our lives number 70 or by reason of strength (gevurah) eighty.”  He goes on to urge us “Limnot yameinu kein hoda,” “teach us to make our days count and so acquire a heart that is wise.”  Once again age is linked to wisdom, indeed something to aspire to.


I have not found any quotation yet in our tradition about this halfway point between seivah and gevurah, white hair and strength.  At 75, however, I am grateful for whatever wisdom I have acquired and for the blessings of life, of body and soul, for which we offer thanks each morning in our prayers.


I am also grateful for all those who have extended their good wishes and blessings as I attain this milestone.  Many turned out at services last Shabbat and stayed for the incredible kiddush that followed.  Marvin Miller and Rick Robertson outdid themselves.  I suspected something was afoot when I saw faces that are not as frequently found in shul at Saturday morning services.  People greeted me with “Happy Birthday.”  I came into the social hall and was urged to quickly make the blessings over the wine and challah.  It was duly noted that added to our collection of adult beverages was a new bottle of bourbon and the challah did not come out of the freezer from our Rosh Hashanah stock but was a fresh raisin challah.  Once I finished the blessings, the real surprise appeared, a giant roasted turkey and along with it wonderful cranberry sauce and tzimmes, and other side dishes, not to mention homemade parve pumpkin pie for dessert..  Yasher koach to the chefs and many thanks to them and to all who came to celebrate. May God grant us the strength to celebrate together many more joyous milestones in our lives.

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