On December 23, my plane landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, accompanied by the traditional wave of passenger clapping. Too jet-lagged to join in, my heart still leaped with joy upon returning home. The next day, I traveled from life to death: from a brit mila and baby naming on Jerusalem’s Rehov Hanevi’im, to a funeral overlooking the Mount of Olives, where I stayed until the last stone was cast on the grave. By the end of this week, I will have attended a shiva, a bar mitzva, two weddings and a sheva brachot. Yet this is no Hollywood movie; this is Israel, the land, its people.
Over the course of my 18-day visit, (18 being hai, life, in gematria), I will have crossed the many stages of life. I feel like the maudlin Jaques who, in the play As You Like It, pontificates on the “seven ages of man” – from the infant, “mewling and puking in its nurse’s arms” to the final stage of second childishness – “mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” According to Shakespeare, men and women are “merely players,” with their exits and their entrances. The script has already been written, cues to be followed.
Similarly, in the midrash, the angel in charge of conception presents the seed before the greatest playwright of all, God, who determines one’s exits and entrances even before birth. He decides whether this “fetid drop” will be male or female, weak or strong, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, humble or haughty. All is predetermined except whether a person shall be righteous or wicked – that alone is in the hands of the individual (Tanhuma Yelamdenu Pekudei
The midrash goes on to describe the fate of man in terms of seven stages: In the first stage, man is like a king, for everyone inquires after his well-being and is eager to see him. They hug and kiss him, as he is only a year old.
In the second stage, he is like a swine that grovels in dunghills, for a child waddles in the dirt when he is two years old.
In the third stage, he is like a goat kid skipping through the fields. He is a delight to his mother’s eyes and a joy to his father. He dances here and there, while laughing, and everyone delights in him.
In the fourth stage, he acts like a horse on the brink of a race. When is that? At the time of maturity, when he is 18. Just as the horse prances about and preens himself, so the lad preens himself in his youth.
In the fifth stage, he is like a donkey upon which a saddle has been placed, burdened with a wife who bears him sons and daughters. He roams here and there to obtain food and sustenance for his children, while they pile more burdens upon him. He is overwhelmed with difficulties because of them. When is that? When he is 40.
In the sixth stage, he is like a dog, who intrudes here and there, taking from one and giving to another and, yet, he is not embarrassed.
In the seventh stage, he resembles a monkey, different from all other creatures. He inquires after everything, eats and drinks like a youngster and laughs like a child. Even the children mock him, and the wild birds cannot awaken him from his sleep (ibid.).
The midrash likens the stages of a man’s life to a king, pig, kid, horse, donkey, dog and monkey – a trajectory destined toward ignominy. I wonder at these animal metaphors; would a woman’s life be described in the same way? Perhaps a little girl – “sugar and spice, and all things nice” – would not be compared to swine, and a preening young woman might resemble a swan more than a racehorse.
Nevertheless, some of the stages are universal. Life takes us from the royalty of infancy, with admiring eyes full of a baby’s potential, to the ape-like “shrunk shank” of hapless old age. The poignancy of life lies in how little we actually control our “exits and entrances.” As the end of the soul’s sojourn on Earth draws to a close, the angel who granted life comes to take the soul away. And the soul cries out, releasing a voice from one end of the Earth to the other, but only the crowing rooster hears. And the angel answers the poignant cry: “Did I not tell you that you were formed against your will, that you were born against your will, that you will live and die against your will and that ultimately you will have to render an accounting before the Holy One, blessed be He, against your will?” (ibid.; cf. M. Avot 4:22). Only God contains the key to life and death.
This week, I have watched brides and grooms, infants and infirm, pass
through dramatic moments of life, each stage marked by rituals of
mourning and celebration. Struck by the ephemeral nature of life, I
recall the words of Kohelet, “Just as dust returns to the ground, the
life-breath returns to God Who bestowed it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). All is
breath, hevel havalim
. One feels it all the more urgently here. From the cradle to the grave, I am grateful to be part of Am Yisrael Hai
– Israel, the land, its people, vibrant and alive.The writer lectures in Bible and
midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies
in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.