Counting the years: A Jewish perspective

Counting the age of a baby from when it is born reflects the idea that only when a person enters the world can he begin to interact with and uplift his/her surroundings.

baby drinking from bottle 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
baby drinking from bottle 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
One of life's most inexplicably indescribable events is giving birth. The exhilarating roller-coaster of emotions from the anxious wait, to pain, to a crescendo of joy, to utter exhaustion sets this incomparably miraculous experience aside from all others one tends to go through. There are many profound concepts one can observe from the birth process; the deeper Jewish sources teach that giving birth is a quintessential analogy to any pain one goes through in life. Just as the birthing pains ultimately lead to the joy and elation of the emergence of a baby, so too is all our suffering aimed at bringing out a constructive joyful outcome: our ability to grow from and rise above the challenges. Yet something else struck me recently about birth.
A couple of weeks ago we had our third child in Shaarei Tzedek hospital in Jerusalem - little Sarah was eagerly welcomed by our six-year old son and four-year old daughter. As is the want of grandparents who live overseas, my parents requested constant photos of baby Sarah be sent to them, which we gladly and duly obliged; such is the gift of technology that these things can be done effortlessly and quickly. Now since babies change quite rapidly from day to day, I dated the pictures each day - 'Sarah after six hours,' 'Sarah day one,' 'day two' and so on. At this point something struck me as odd. For months my wife and I had been looking at scans of our baby developing and growing in the womb -  from an initial speck on the ultrasound, after a few months we could make out a clear shape of her tiny body, living a happy existence in the womb. But only when she came out of the womb did we begin the age count; Why is that, I pondered. Why do we delay beginning the age count to the time when a baby exits in the womb? I decided to pose the question to some students and friends, with various answers proffered.
A medically-minded person went for the biological angle - an organism within its own organism does not have its own independently functioning vital organs and as such could have a lesser degree of 'life' attributed to them. A keen individualist/capitalist pointed out that an organism that depends on others for their life cannot be considered as having a fully independent 'life.' An eastern-minded collectivist's answer - a baby in the womb cannot have social interaction nor can he/she be considered a functioning part of society. A skeptic's answer: because when they first began counting they did not have ultrasounds. While these answers were interesting and no doubt provided food for thought (especially with regards to the mindset of the person who offered each answer), I wasn't satisfied. Partly because the answers I heard were not all-encompassing (one of a pair of Siamese twins might require the use of the vital organs of the other yet we'd still count their age), and partly because there was a feeling that as a religious Jew I felt intuitively there had to be another answer out there - one with deep moral and ethical implications. After pondering the question further, I came up with the following.
What does it mean to count something or someone; is this merely an arbitrary way of quantifying something? The Jewish teaching is that counting is a much deeper process than simply 'labeling.' Counting demonstrates the importance and value of the quantity being counted. Our commentators point out that the two times the Jews were counted in the desert were both to show G-d's love for us. Someone who counts their money often does so because this is their value in life. Further, when the count is performed is a crucial point - this tells us what aspect is being valued about subject of the counting. The Jews in the desert were counted only after the Torah was given - after they had been given their full Divine mission - and thus they were considered a fully unified nation with a unified cosmic mission. Consequently, some Jews used to observe a count from the day of a baby boy's circumcision - the day the child entered into an eternal covenant with G-d; they felt that this was the beginning of the baby's spiritual existence, as it were. Ancient Greek practice counted a woman's age from the day they married: apparently a woman's value was based on her contribution to her husband.
From when do we count a baby's age? From when they exit the womb. I believe a very deep human yearning and condition is being expressed here.
A young lady confronted Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen and declared that she refused to ever have kids in her lifetime. Realizing that if the lady had come to tell him this she was evidently somewhat open to a dialogue, Rabbi Kelemen asked the young lady why this was so. The woman replied: "the world is such a terrible place to raise a child - so much corruption and darkness. How can I possibly force on my child to live in such a world?!" Rabbi Kelemen took a second to momentarily gather his thoughts, and responded with what I think is the key to our question. "On the contrary," he said. "The fact that the world is a dark, empty place is the biggest reason to bring a new child to the world. Your child can contribute, uplift and ultimately change the world - shining light into places of darkness."
Man was not created in isolation, with self-contained goals of self-gratification. Man was made to change the world - to better his surroundings and society. Man's mission is to give to the world, not simply to take from it. Counting the age of a baby from when it is born reflects and perhaps expresses this theme; only when a baby enters the world can he begin to interact with and uplift the world around them. They may not have the full mental or physical faculties and ability to do that just yet, but the mission and expectations begin on the day they are born: hence the count beginning then. When a couple gets married - when their horizons expand further and their opportunities to give meaningfully take on a new level - there is a re-birth of sorts too. Any past mistakes the bride and groom might have made are forgiven and a new chapter of their life begins. Jewish practice is that a man and wife get married surrounded by a canopy which is open at four sides. The reason for this is because it emulates the tent of Abraham - a tent which was open to visitors and full of kindness and hospitality - a reminder of our mission to contribute to the world: to give and not to take. True, as Jewish custom at a wedding teaches us there is crucial value to a man and wife spending time alone together secluded in a private room. But ultimately they use this energy and closeness to radiate joy to others - to then celebrate with the other guests at the wedding.
A baby is born with his fists closed; he is by nature more of a 'taker' - he cannot fend for himself and depends on his parents (particularly his mother) for sustenance and survival. He can now develop and deepen this attribute of giving and practice it on others. When one passes from this world one's hands tend to be open, symbolizing a giving hand, one's mission here.
The very birth of a baby reminds us of our ability, mission and expectation to be giving people who make a real difference in the world. The author is an English oleh who lives and teaches in Jerusalem, having authored two books and run various educational programs.