This is Jewish 40

Maybe it’s because my birthday falls right smack dab in the midst of Yamim Nora’im (the Days of Awe) this year, but I have to admit that I’m feeling particularly reflective today, the big 4-0. Maybe that’s just the normal mid-life adult thing to do, though. It’s really hard to say.

While there may not be anything particular about being Jewish and turning 40 on the surface, if you know me, you know that I seek the deeper meaning of connectedness through a Jewish lens in nearly everything I do. In other words, I didn’t get into rabbinical school so I just play one on the internet. I also did not get a chance to deliver a big sermon this past week so I’m taking the opportunity right now – it is my birthday, after all, so humor me.

As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman summarizes in a blog: “‘Forty’ turns up everywhere in the Bible. Esau too marries at 40 (Gen. 26:34).  Noah’s flood lasts 40 days and 40 nights (Gen. 7:17, 58:6); the spies take 40 days to scout the Land of Canaan (Num. 13:25); 40 days and nights is how long Moses spent atop Mt. Sinai (Exod. 24:18, 34:28); the book of Judges says, “The land had rest for 40 years” between the time that Othniel conquered the Arameans and “the children of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (Judg. 3:11).”

Forty is also and perhaps most well-known as the number of years the Israelites wandered in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. It is also 1/3 of 120, which is the traditional birthday greeting – “Ad 120” or “To 120” which derives from the age to which Moses lived. Coincidentally (or perhaps there is no coincidence at all), in the Torah portion for this very week, Parashat Vayeilech, we read:

And Moses went, and he spoke the following words to all Israel. אוַיֵּ֖לֶךְ משֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
He said to them, “Today I am one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go or come, and the Lord said to me, “You shall not cross this Jordan.” בוַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם בֶּן־מֵאָה֩ וְעֶשְׂרִ֨ים שָׁנָ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹֽא־אוּכַ֥ל ע֖וֹד לָצֵ֣את וְלָב֑וֹא וַֽיהֹוָה֙ אָמַ֣ר אֵלַ֔י לֹ֥א תַֽעֲבֹ֖ר אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֥ן הַזֶּֽה:

His birthday marks a turning point for Moses – and an endpoint. Though he led the people for FORTY years to the Land of Milk and Honey, he will never enter it himself. Biblical scholars and many others have argued and theorized for many years about why this happened. It feels so unfair for him not to get his ‘reward’ after all his hard work. There is wisdom here to be gleaned about the process and not the product of our labor.

If you aren’t following the pattern here, it seems to me that the number 40 is significant in marking (very long) periods of transition. Forty is the number – whether in days or years – that it takes to make an important or significant change or, perhaps, to let enough time pass between landmark moments. And in its infinite wisdom and complexity of message, that Torah feels so right today. Forty years ago today, I was born. And I’ve spent these 40 years wandering – sometimes aimlessly perhaps, but often with, I’d like to think, a sense of divine purpose – determining, testing, and calculating who I will be when I reach that Promised Land. Hineini: here I am.

As soon as I turned 39 last year, I started thinking about turning 40 this year and, truly, up until late last night, I was focused this year on what “products” I have to show for 40 years on this Earth. It’s easy to be self-critical (especially when you’re a Virgo like me) and I was feeling pretty disappointed at the perceived lack of collection of accolades and awards and major life ‘accomplishments’. Perhaps it took the clock striking midnight for me to shift my thinking and to focus on the “process” instead.

At 40, I’m determined to be my most authentic self. I have nothing to hide and so much of which to be proud. I have an incredible, loving family – both of origin and the one I’ve created with my husband – and loyal, thoughtful, and wonderful friends from across my life’s experiences. I have work that not only sustains me but energizes me. I have community, locally and in far-flung places across the country and the globe, who embrace me. I feel that my life has a deep sense of purpose and connectedness to my ancestors, my faith, my people, and my land. I have my good health. Indeed, this is Jewish 40 and I am so incredibly grateful, fortunate, and blessed beyond measure to begin again.