40 days to change your life?

In the heat of August, 2010, I took a few bags and left home. It was the day my wife and I finally declared an end to a marriage that had been difficult for most of its nineteen years. Two days later, I spent my 51st birthday alone in a rented room. I was at the bottom of my life and I saw no way up.

A book by Dan Millman called The Life You Were Born To Live had found its way into one of my suitcases and, having nothing more interesting to do on my birthday, I started reading. At that point, I had just come to a dead end in the life I expected to live, so I could hardly wait to learn what the real thing was going to be. One of the things Millman puts forth is a guide to living according to your life-purpose number.

“OK,” I thought. “Why not? Makes about as much sense as anything else in my life at the moment.” My own life-purpose number, it turns out, is 40. Millman had a comprehensive way of making the calculation.

Sometime later, I found myself in the room of a numerologist who asked me to write down the various numbers in my life. Interestingly enough, the number 40 actually does tend to come up and add up for me—in my phone numbers, even in my name. Without really intending to, I started noticing the number 40 when it came to my attention.

About that time, I was becoming more interested in Judaism, and I was reading the weekly Torah portion most weeks. As I made my way through these amazing stories, I could not help noticing that there is no shortage of episodes in which the number 40 appears—40 days in the flood, 40 days on the mountain, 40 years in the desert.

I began to think about these stories and the journeys they described. I wondered what they could tell me about my own life and struggles. Given the turbulence I had experienced in my marriage and the lost and lonely quality of my life then, I didn’t need signs to tell me that I needed to change. What I did need was some specific understanding about how to go about it and the courage to follow through.

Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai before he was able and deemed ready to receive the Torah from God, as the narrative goes. And after the forty days had been accomplished and Moses came down from the mountain carrying the Torah, it was told that he was encircled in light. Sounds like something very serious had to precede an event on the magnitude of facing the Divine, of bringing down the law. A purification of some kind, it seemed. But why specifically 40, I wondered.

The first mention of forty in the Torah is in Genesis, and it had to do with the flood: “And the rain was upon the earth for forty days and the flood annihilated all of mankind except Noah and his immediate family because Noah was considered the only one void of sin. The flood purified the earth of all its evil, making way for a new start.

The flood that lasted forty days and forty nights was itself a form of mikveh, within which the whole world was immersed. According to Kabala, this immersion was the purpose of the flood itself. This purification of the entire planet allowed for all life to be renewed, and, we assume, transformed.

The significance of the forty days of water is underscored by the specification that a mikveh is required to contain at least forty seah (unit of measure) of water. But I still wondered: what was it about 40? I saw that the qualities of purity, renewal, transformation seemed to attach themselves to the number 40, but I didn’t understand why, specifically, 40. Why not seven or thirteen or one?

Another impelling episode from the Torah is the story of the spies, which is found in the Book of Numbers. The setting was the desert; the Israelites had received the Torah, but had not yet entered the Promised Land. Twelve men were sent into the land to investigate what and who was there, and to bring back a report. They were gone for forty days. When they returned, ten of the twelve gave a negative report: it would be too hard to enter and live in this land, they claimed. The whole of the people accepted this report, and, as a result, they were condemned to wander the desert for nothing more or less than 40 years.

There are a number of interpretations of this apparent punishment. In one of them, the reason the negative report was returned, and the reason the people accepted the negative report, is that they were all born, raised and lived as slaves. They had the timid, acquiescent mentality of slaves. But something much bolder and more confident was required of a people who would enter and conquer this land that had been promised. So the punishment was less a condemnation of the individual members of the tribe, and more a necessary purification, renewal and transformation of the people as a whole. The generation of the slaves had to die out before the newly wrought people could enter the land.

A powerful story. But why specifically forty days spying out the land? Why specifically 40 years wandering in the desert? I still didn’t know why, but it was becoming clear that the number 40 is associated with the values of purification, renewal and transformation. And, since forty seemed to be a theme in my own life, I was getting the message that it would be a good idea for me to find a way to refine my own life’s journey with these processes. I just didn’t know how. I felt I was raising more questions than answers, but at least the questions seemed to be better questions than I had been asking myself in the past.

I was finding myself coming to something I called “acceptance” of the oneness of God – the recognition that God exists everywhere and in everything. This understanding was mind blowing in its way, but—at the time—I saw it as a state of mind more than a tool that I could use. I was, after all, living in an epoch when the moving forces of the world were rational, not spiritual. Most people I knew made decisions based on quantifiable evidence, not on a sense of how the Divine operates in the Universe. So the nature of the tool began to take shape only when I realized that the secret is learning how to operate according to a new reality. Then, I understood that I need to find my spiritual path and get my foot on that path. The path seemed to be one in which my life would need Tikun- redirecting and even correcting.

In this context, I was inspired anew by a story from the Bible that I had loved as a child: David and Goliath (and not only because David is my namesake). Reading the story as an adult, I discovered something in the text that I hadn’t noticed before. The prospect of facing the mighty Goliath, who had, so far, defeated everyone who went up against him, was such a daunting undertaking that David and his fellow warriors hesitated for—not surprisingly—40 days. Seems a long time to make a decision. Yet coming to terms with a course in life, gathering courage, finding a focal point, figuring out how that course will affect everything in your life—these are all matters of spirit as well as practicality. Maybe they really are important enough to warrant a good, long period of thought, prayer, meditation.

It seemed that what I was searching for—maybe what we all search for—was my own strength, or how to discover my strongest qualities and to find a way to use them to good purpose: my forte, a word that bears a resemblance to forty.

I was nowhere near living in the spiritual dimension that I wanted and that seemed to be beckoning me, even staring me in the face. And I understood that undergoing the kind of transformation required to get there would mean giving up and letting go of all kinds of old habits, old assumptions, old ways of doing and thinking about things—all of which had become familiar, if not comfortable.

I was petrified. I was not sure I had the courage I needed.
It was about this time that I ran across this saying by the renowned sixteenth century Prague scholar, Rabbi Loew, also known as the Maharal of Prague:
“The number 40 has the power to raise somebody’s spiritual state,” he said.

This week’s Torah portion “Mishpatim’ (Ordinances) concludes with the following line:
“Moses arrived in the midst of the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” (Exodus 24:18)

I guess this cloudy Shabbat may be as good a time as ever to approach the mountain.

About the Author
David Skolni is a South African immigrant. He came to live in Israel in 1982. He is a special needs teacher and a practitioner in the Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education. His current interest is in the connections between body, movement and Judaism.