In Plain Language: The Long and Winding Road

The consensus in the Talmud is that one who lives to be less than 60 is considered to have been taken before his time.

June 13, 2013 14:14
The Remembrance Day stamp.

Remembrance Day stamp 311. (photo credit: Israel Philatelic Service)

If there is a biblical definition of “mid-life,” it must, of course, be 60. Indeed, the consensus in the Talmud is that one who lives to be less than 60 is considered to have been taken before his time. Even in these heady days of advanced medicine and increased longevity – Israel being among the world’s leaders in average life span – 60 is by all accounts a milestone that makes us at once thankful for that which has been, and somewhat apprehensive of the diminishing time ahead (Ethics of the Fathers says 60 signals the onset of zikna – old age – and King David remarks famously in his Psalms that “the days of our life are 70; and, by virtue of greater strength, 80”).

In commemoration of our 60th birthdays this year, a group of contemporaries recently got together.

Many of us have known each other since the first grade, back in the “old country,” and have become even closer since making aliya. We chose to mark the event by singing karaoke-style (a first for me), choosing songs from the soundtrack of our lives. Since there basically hasn’t been any good music since the ’60s and ’70s (yes, kids, you heard me right!) it was – as Bread so perfectly put it – a “Sweet Surrender” to the nostalgia of those amazing days.

There was – and still is – a pervasive mood of optimism that gripped all of us way back when, and never let us go. Perhaps that was what gave us, early on, our innate feeling that we could do great things, even someday come to a new land that was filled with great adventures; modern-day pioneers who believed, perhaps naively, that we could change the world.

“Little” Stevie Wonder told us back in 1966 that there was a “Place in the Sun” with room for everyone, while the Monkees encouraged us to proclaim, “I’m a Believer” (sorry, kids, that hit did not originate with Shrek). We were the “Peace and Love” generation, knowing full well, as Jackie DeShannon and Karen Carpenter put it, respectively, that “Love Will Find a Way,” that “We’ve Only Just Begun” and we’re on “Top of the World.”

We knew everything, we were supremely confident; we had a twinkle in our eyes and a rather large chip on our shoulders. We were the “Age of Aquarius,” ready and willing to let the sun shine in.

BUT US baby-boomers, for all our sunshine and light, were also the anti-war generation. Our fathers had come home, battle-scarred but buoyant, from the grim battlefields of World War II – my own dad had spent three years in the Philippines, fighting the Japanese – determined to put the killing behind them and get busy living life.

In the two decades between 1946 and 1966, they made babies – lots of babies – and not war, as the population of the United States jumped by more than 50 million people. We respected our parents for what they had done, but we also had an acute perception of the difference between wars that were necessary for humanity’s survival, and wars that were a waste of human life – a trait that would later serve us well as we graduated into citizens of a country perpetually in a state of war.

And so, when Vietnam reared its ugly head, we had a visceral, almost violent antipathy for it, fueled and/or echoed by songs like Edwin Starr’s “War – What Is It Good For?,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home,” and of course, “Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s haunting elegy prompted by the shootings at Kent State. We showed off our youthful, anti-establishment attitude by marching against the war, disrupting the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, and letting our hair grow long (ah, to quote Mary Hopkins, “Those Were the Days!”).

And we devoted no small share of our exuberant energy to pleading for human rights as well, taking up all manner of social causes – from poverty in Bangladesh to racial equality, to the wanton killing of seals and whales, and finally to the desperate plea of our brothers and sisters in Russia, struggling valiantly to break through the Iron Curtain to freedom. It was, for many of us, that mighty effort to free Soviet Jewry that served to crystallize perfectly our inner need to do something positive, something beyond ourselves, with our equally intense desire to be more active, involved, committed Jews.

Here, the Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” neatly coalesced with “Am Yisrael Hai” and “Hatikva,” to light that perpetual Jewish/idealist fire within us, a fire we never stopped stoking.

If the ’50s were personified by James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, we became rebels with a cause. Three causes, actually, a kind of three-pronged stool upon which our world rests: the Jewish people, the Torah and the Land of Israel. Reaching God – the ultimate goal, after all – by connecting to ourselves, to our surrounding community and to global Jewry. Each one alone proved insufficient, unfulfilling, perhaps even hypocritical.

But the combination of all three was irresistible.

And so, when our lives turned the corner toward middle age, we joined the movement to build our own state and forge our own destiny. After climbing, literally, the “Stairway to Heaven” that was our huppa, we were on our way; Israel became the most fertile soil in which to grow our Jewish souls.

THE TALMUD records that Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua lived to a very old age. When his students asked him for the secret of his longevity, he began by saying, “I never took a shortcut through the synagogue.” A bit of an oblique answer, but I suggest the sage was implying that while others may have cut corners and traded exertion for expediency, he took no shortcuts. He made no excuses. He did the hard work and made the tough choices, which is the essential formula for success in eliciting God’s blessing while living in this country.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Adda bar Ahava (Ta’anit 20b) was asked the secret of his survival, and he replied, “I never displayed impatience in my house, nor walked in front of one greater than myself...

never neglected the Torah nor fell asleep in the house of study – even for moment – nor did I rejoice at the misfortune of my friend or call him by a derogatory name.” Here, the qualities of patience, humility, diligence and courtesy shine forth – all challenges that life in this state present to us on a daily basis.

These 60 years have seen for us the highest highs and the lowest lows any human being can experience.

The birth of children and grandchildren, the death of a child. Falling missiles and a skyrocketing economy. A war that was miraculously won in just six days, and a peace that seems light years away from being realized. Friends that have come, and gone; but many others who stayed to cast their lot with their fellow Zionists and dreamers.

Dreamers who dream the words of “Mahar” – “Tomorrow” – Naomi Shemer’s evocative ode to optimism:

Tomorrow, when the army finally removes its uniform, our hearts will stand at attention.

And then we shall build with our own two hands that which we only dream of today.

All this is no fable, no illusion, it is as clear as the light of day.

And if it will not happen tomorrow, then surely the day after.

FRANK SINATRA sang, “There isn’t much that I have learned / Through all my foolish years. / Except that life keeps runnin’ in cycles / First there’s laughter, then those tears....”

But the rabbis summed it up a bit differently. They coined two Hebrew phrases that we traditionally tack on to our greetings. The first, for the average person, is “amush,” the abbreviation for “May you live until 120 years.” But for someone of exceptional wisdom, who understands that quality trumps quantity, we bestow the title “shlita,” which means, “May you live many good years.”

At the ripe old age of 60 – a number considered absolutely ancient back when I was a teenager – it seems clearer and clearer that it is the life within our years, rather than the years within our life, that ultimately writes our legacy.

So many songs to sing. But if there are any lyrics, any one tune that I would choose as a theme song, it would have to be that classic, “The Boxer,” from those two wonderful Jewish boys Simon and Garfunkel:

In the clearing stands a boxer And a fighter by his trade; And he carries the reminders, Of ev’ry glove that laid him down Or cut him till he cried out In his anger and his shame, “I am leaving, I am leaving,” But the fighter still remains.

Scientists tell us that there are stars in the heavens whose light only reaches the earth after that star has ceased to be. The hope of anyone who is growing old is that he or she can also cast a light far beyond his years, a light so bright that somewhere, in some dark place, it will illuminate the road and show others the way to go.

Wishing you all a long – and good – life. ■

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.

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