On Rosh HaShanah, we are supposed to take some time to reflect upon the year that has come to a close – specifically the moments in our lives that, when we look back, contained within them incredible bits of knowledge.
These moments are not always the joyful moments that are captured by photographs, video, or scrapbooks. While they can be wonderful experiences, they can be challenging – or even seemingly insignificant at the time.
If you really give yourself time to reflect on the year that has come to a close – you quickly realize just how many teaching moments you have lived through. Most of these moments come and go and we fail to grasp the lessons they contain. But, they forever remain a part of our own personal “Book of Days”. A book that is available to us year round – but one that we rarely flip through except during these Days of Awe.
Rosh HaShanah gives us the encouragement and the time to flip through our “Book of Days” and mull over where we have been, what we have seen and heard and who we have been in contact with these past 12 Jewish months. And, of course, on Rosh HaShanah, we are not limited to moments that took place in the closing year. Our entire life is fair game. Every year we get a chance to examine every one of our days and grab a lesson we might have missed along the way.
Tonight, I share with you a moment of mine from the past year – a moment that is perhaps obvious, but one that I let fly by because I did not want to deal with it.
As you might know, I turned 40 on August 1. Turning the big 4-0 is, for many of us, a big deal. With all due respect to those older than me – 40 has always been the age you turn when you are officially “old”. Silly I know. Wrong, I know – especially now that I am 40.
But, I dreaded turning 40 because, in many ways it marked a milestone that I did not want to reach…an end of my “young” years and the beginning of something more serious and something “old”. And what did I have to show for my 40 years? Have I wasted this time? Certainly, I have a beautiful family, a wonderful congregation – but I am 40!
Moses had already taken his first stand against Pharaoh at 40. John Glen orbited the earth at 40. By the time he was 39, Thomas Edison invented a speaker diaphragm that made the telephone commercially practical, provided NY city with electricity and invented a wireless telegraph system. Bill Gates was a billionaire by 30! What have I done that has come close to any of this over the past 40 years!? Have I used my time wisely? Or have I wasted my 40 years? These are the types of questions that ran through my head late at night the closer I got to the big 4-0.
Certainly, the anticipation leading up to the birthday was worse than the actual day. And given that we were in Israel on my birthday – I had little time to focus on the day. But, after turning 40, the late night questions did not stop. In fact, they got worse and I started to feel kind of down – simply because of the number 40.
Just days after my birthday, the Jewish month of Elul began, the time when we are to begin preparing for Rosh HaShanah by examining our lives and determining if we are happy where we are. Elul came at a perfect time for me as I was spending too much time “reflecting” on this number 40 and how it defines me and makes me feel.
Elul encouraged me to look at the number 40 from a Jewish lens. It is a number that appears over and over again in our tradition.
• Noah was trapped on the ark with his family and the animals for 40 days and nights as the earth was flooded.
• Before he received the 10 Commandments, Moses spent 40 days on top of Mount Sinai with God.
• The Jews wandered the desert for 40 years prior to entering Israel.
• A mikveh, a spiritual pool used to cleanse the body and soul must contain 40 se’ah (200 gallons) of water.
In Judaism, the number 40 has the power to raise up a person or thing’s spiritual state. Just as FORTY measures of water purifies a person, FORTY days of rain purified the world during Noah’s time. Moses being on Mt. Sinai for FORTY days had a purifying effect in that the Jews arrived at Mt. Sinai as a nation of Egyptian slaves, but after forty days they were G-d’s nation – having received the 10 Commandments. It took our ancestors 40 years to prepare themselves to enter the land of Israel – 40 years during which they wandered, lost in the wilderness. It was during these 40 years that our ancestors evolved and matured and were – at the 40th year mark – able to cross into Israel.
The Talmud points out, that it takes 40 days for an embryo to form inside its mother – prior to this point, the embryo is described by the sages as merely a “liquid”.
In this way, 40 marks the beginning of life – everything before it is seen as the preparation. 40 marks renewal. 40 marks maturity. Once you have matured, you are ready for the next step. You are ready for life.
Judaism teaches us that Torah study should begin at age five. At 13 it is time to study the Commandments. At 15 one is ready to begin Talmud study. A wedding is in store for an 18 year old. When one turns 30 – he is ready to gain authority. And at 40 one should pursue binah, that is, deep understanding. The rabbis state that it is “only at the age of 40 that the student is fit to understand properly the thought of his teacher,” for “40 years is the age of wisdom.”
Related to this, the Kabbalists teach us that at 40, the human soul becomes spiritually mature. This is why it is taught that 40 is the year when one can begin to study Kabbalah – Jewish mysticism.
It took Moses 40 days to receive the 10 Commandments, the Jewish people 40 years to return to Israel – and us – 40 years to spiritually grow into ourselves.
This concept resonated with me. Instead of turning the big 4-0 and focusing on age, instead of obsessing upon what I have yet to do, rather than seeing 40 as a milestone that marked the end of my youth, Judaism was urging me to see forty as a beginning: a doorway; a time of transition.
Nine years ago, as I began my time here at Ramat Shalom, I found myself, as many new rabbis do, being compared to the previous rabbi. And it seemed that nothing I did – no matter how hard I tried – allowed me to do my job like the previous rabbi did. It seemed that many in the congregation were not happy with me simply because I was not the previous rabbi. I tried so hard and, while I received many complements, I focused on the complaints that I received. Some of these complaints were constructive. And then there were the mean ones. While I have learned that this is par for the course, in my early 30’s – such criticism was hard. I took it very personally and no matter how hard I tried to overcome what some saw as my weaknesses, I could not succeed.
At one point, a member of the congregation came to visit me. She came into my office, placed a bottle of wine on my desk and told me what my problem was: “you’re a kid” she said. “One day, you will grow up and you will understand what is going on. You just can’t get it now. Go and get drunk.”
Her words did not sit too well with me. While perhaps her intentions were good, she came across as patronizing and condescending. I told her so as I handed her back her wine bottle, telling her that I could not accept her “gift”.
As I enter my 5th decade and look back on that moment, I can now say that despite her really bad communication skills and her lack of sensitivity and respect – this woman was speaking a very Jewish lesson. With time and age come understanding, maturity and growth. Things make more sense – you gain perspective the older you get. This being said, I really don’t suggest you go to your rabbi or doctor or lawyer and tell him that he is just young and immature….trust me – it really won’t go over well.
I would certainly handle many of the challenges that I went through as a new rabbi, a new husband, a new father, a new half-marathon runner – a new anything – differently today. But, the bumps and the bruises and even the joyful moments I had while living these challenges – these were my desert wanderings. We mature by wandering in our desert – making the wrong turns, the u-turns, the right turns and taking time to reach the promised land, our destination. It is the turns and twists on the journey and the slow, often arduous trek that allows us to gain spiritual insight into ourselves and the world around us.
I can tell you that after that woman came into my office, I was ready to toss in the towel. I called a mentor of mine, who told me that I could walk away. I could easily get another congregation. But, he assured me that no matter where I went, it would be hard. “Any rabbi can leave a congregation,” he said. “Not every rabbi can stay at one.” Too many rabbis, he said, want it easy. They just want to be accepted. “It doesn’t work that way,” he told me. “I would be disappointed with myself if I gave in, “ my mentor explained.
These were not the words I wanted to hear. I wanted a quick fix. An easy transition. But I trusted my mentor. And I stuck it out. And the journey through my wilderness continued. I made some more wrong turns. But, within time, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel – much like the Israelites could see that the land of Israel was not too far away. And here I am, many years later, a 40 year-old rabbi – who considers himself the luckiest rabbi in the world to be serving as the spiritual leader of the best congregation there is.
Yes, it would have been easier to quit way back when. But I would have missed all of this. A lesson we should apply to all of our challenges and struggles in life – whether we are turning 40 or not.
Mind you, as we become 40 – we do not suddenly become the wisest of souls. Far from it! Just as we are taught by the rabbis that at 40 we are ready to pursue wisdom – at 50 they teach us that we are ready to give counsel, at 60 we are worthy of being a communal elder – someone deserving of great respect – and at 80 we gain special strength. At 40, we simply become more aware of our role in this world and the spiritual responsibilities we must face.
40 does not mean I have arrived at wisdom. 40 means, that I am capable of searching for wisdom, of taking everything to the next level – my studies, my relationships, my role as a husband and father and son. Forty means that I have the ability to take a step back and look at where I have come from and where I want to go. Forty is a transition –and a good one. It is not the end of anything – but rather the beginning.
The Torah that we will read tomorrow morning reminds us that age should not stop us from doing incredible things. We will read about the birth of Isaac and the challenging consequences of this birth. Isaac’s mother, Sarah, who tried for years and years to get pregnant, gave birth to Isaac at the ripe old age of 90. Some become millionaires at 30. Others orbit the moon at 40. And our matriarch, Sarah, learns that she is going to be a mother at 90. And what does she do? She laughs. In fact, the name Isaac – means laughter – laughter that reflects Sarah’s shock and awe that at 90 she finally got what she had wanted all along – a child. This child, Isaac, is a reminder to all of us that the laughter and joy associated with accomplishing something wonderful can occur even very late in life.
As I begin a new year, at the beginning of my 40th year, I look back upon my life and give thanks for all of the journeys – great ones and challenging ones – all the wonderful memories and all the bumps and bruises and scars and count each and every single one as a blessing – for they make up not simply my “Book of Days” – but my own personal desert, my own wilderness. I wouldn’t be who I am and where I am and talking to you today from this bimah if I had never traveled through that wilderness.
My hope for us all tonight – no matter what our age – is that we begin the new year by realizing that the years we spend in the wilderness lead us to great places. Don’t be afraid to get lost. Don’t be afraid to journey. Yeah it can be hot and sandy and uncomfortable. But 40 years in the desert can lead you to Israel. It led me to Ramat Shalom. And it will lead you to great places.