I celebrated my 60th birthday on Shabbat. My 99-year-old mother said she can’t believe her baby (of four) is already 60! A dear friend kindly reminded me that 60 is merely the ½ way point “ad meah v’esrim” until 120. Reaching this milestone motivated me to reflect a bit on time as a measurement of life.
I recalled a passage from Pirke Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) and wanted to refresh my memory of how they characterized the age of 60. I found my way to Chapter 5, Mishnah 25, which describes 14 ages or stages of life, in three groupings. The first group begins with the preparations for the task of life:
At five years of age, the study of Scripture; At ten, the study of Mishnah;
At thirteen, “lamitzvot” subject to the commandments;
At fifteen, the study of Gemara; At eighteen, “lachuppah” the marriage canopy;
Having completed the necessary training, we embark on our life’s work, covering the next 50 years in this second group:
At twenty, “l’rdof” for pursuit [of livelihood]; At thirty, “lakoach” attains full strength;
At forty, “labeenah” understanding; At fifty, “l’eitzah” able to give counsel;
At sixty, “l’ziknah” attains old age; At seventy “laseivah”, fullness of years;
The third and final group captures the years of decline and fading away:
At eighty, the age of “spiritual strength”; At ninety, a bent body;
At one hundred, as if dead.
My first reflection: I didn’t really appreciate how some sources characterized 60 “l’ziknah” as “elderly”, “old age creeping on”, or according to the 13th Century Talmudist Meiri, 60 is “the age when one should begin to consider that the end is not far off” and to give fuller attention to duties before G-d. I found a more palatable explanation for reaching 60 in the Art Scroll edition as “’seniority’ denoting one’s appearance at that age, or it refers to ‘intellectual maturity’”. My brother-in-law also made me feel a little better when he shared the following commentary from Midrash Shmuel: a zaken (elder) is zeh she’kanah chochmah (the one who acquired wisdom. Finally, I learned – much to my delight – that in gematriya (assigning a numerical value to each Hebrew letter), 60 equals both koach (strength) and lev (heart).
A second reflection: I have actually felt each of these different ages and stages at various points during these past 10+ months. We’ve all been tested in so many different ways and we’ve needed to be flexible and agile. This experience forced us to retrain ourselves, to prepare anew, to learn new skills to better navigate through these disruptive and uncertain times. At different points, I am sure we’ve felt strength and understanding, we’ve offered advice and benefited from good counsel. We’ve also certainly felt exhausted and depleted – and when my back went out on me last month, I was even literally “bent over”.
My third reflection: COVID has messed with our clocks and our sense of time. Just as we say about camp, the days go on and on and are so full that each day feels like a week. And yet, a week passes by seemingly so quickly, making each week feel like a day. That’s COVID-time. To be sure, we’ve missed in-person gatherings, yet many have used these months to reconnect with time past. We’ve probably all participated in various reunions…families, camps, youth groups, college and graduate school friends. For me, these reconnections have provided a source of strength, joy, and energy. And, I have found profound wisdom and renewed passion observing the resiliency of so many I have encountered during the early morning or late evening hours spent on screen during the pandemic.
A fourth reflection: The Torah portion for this past Shabbat, Parashat Bo, includes the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as they leave Egypt: Hachodesh hazeh lachem – this new month belongs to you. This calls on us to sanctify time, to reflect on it, and to use it thoughtfully and productively. We must think of time itself as a gift – a moment, a month, a year. In the midst of each day during COVID, we’ve been swept up by the pressures of the moment. We’ve also had occasions to consider how we can spend our time wisely to make a difference in our own lives, and in the lives of others.
I begin the “second half” of my life filled with appreciation and anticipation. While I have missed the power of in-person connections, I am grateful to my colleagues, friends, and family for the many opportunities to be together virtually and to gain strength from one another – always much appreciated at my “old age”.
My dear mother remembers the experience of the Great Depression, which shaped her outlook on life. We, too, will forever remember this unfathomable experience, which continues to challenge us, teach us, and, I hope, inspire us as we reflect back on this time and as we anticipate and prepare for our post-pandemic world.