This coming Tuesday, August 1, is Tisha B’Av, a solemn day on the Jewish calendar. I wrote about Tisha B’Av earlier this month. Tuesday also happens to be my 47th birthday. While it’s a bit challenging to have my birthday coincide with Tisha B’Av this year, it’s also quite powerful.
Some suggest that Tisha B’Av is the moment to start preparing for Rosh HaShanah, the new Jewish year that begins when the sun goes down on September 20th. On Tisha B’Av we’re not only encouraged to remember our ancestor’s exile from Israel, but also to recognize that many of us are in exile today – wandering in our own personal desert, lost and confused. While we might try to avoid it, now is the time to pay close attention to the desert we find ourselves in. Now is the time to ask ourselves, what got us here? What can we learn from our wanderings? What can we take from our experience in the desert that will make us stronger? We’ve got about two months to answer these questions – two months until Yom Kippur, the holiest day on our calendar. The day we’re led out of the desert; the day the wandering comes to an end; the day we’re given a new beginning…IF we ask the questions. IF we search for the answers. IF we dive deep and use our time in the desert in a way that empowers us to grow. Tisha B’Av is the time to begin asking, searching and diving deep.
As I turn 47 on Tisha B’Av, yes, I’ll celebrate my birthday. But, as part of this celebration, I’ll take time to reflect upon my journey, looking back as I move forward. In preparation for this reflection, I re-read my 2010/5771 Erev Rosh HaShanah sermon (I’ve included an abridged version of the sermon below. Please click here to read the sermon in its entirety) in which I shared my thoughts on turning 40. In it, I wrote:
The time we spend in the wilderness (the desert) leads 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.
I feel the same way as I prepare to turn 47. Getting lost has led me on some truly incredible journeys.
2010/5771 EREV ROSH HASHANAH SERMON: The Power of Forty
On Rosh HaShanah, we’re 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 aren’t always the joyful moments that are captured in 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’ve 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’ve been, what we’ve seen and heard and who we’ve been in contact with over the past 12 months. And, of course, on Rosh HaShanah, we’re 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 didn’t 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’re 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 didn’t 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’m 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 didn’t 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’re to begin preparing for Rosh HaShanah by examining our lives and determining if we’re 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’s 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.” (No political statement intended here!)
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’ve matured, you’re ready for the next step. You’re ready for life.
Judaism teaches us that Torah study should begin at age five. At 13 it’s 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’s ready to gain authority. And at 40 one should pursue binah, that is, deep understanding. The rabbis state that it’s “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’s 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 it took 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 is urging me to see forty as a beginning: a doorway; a time of transition.
Mind you, as we become 40 – we don’t suddenly become the wisest of souls. Far from it! Just as we’re taught by the rabbis that at 40 we’re ready to pursue wisdom – at 50 they teach us that we’re ready to give counsel, at 60 we’re 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.
Turning 40 doesn’t mean that I’ve arrived at wisdom. 40 means that I’m capable of searching for wisdom, of taking everything to the next level – my studies, my relationships, my role as a husband and father, son, friend and rabbi. Forty means that I now have the ability to take a step back and look at where I’ve come from and where I want to go. Forty is a transition – and a good one. It’s not the end of anything – but rather the beginning.
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’d 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 time we spend in the wilderness leads 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.