Age is Just a Number

I’m in some birthday limbo.  My teudat zehut, my Israeli identification card (kind of like a domestic passport, or a social security card with a number you share with everyone) has both my Hebrew birthday and my birthday on the Gregorian Calendar, May 25.  So I feel a bit between years, and so does the Israeli government, apparently.  (And they are really confused because they list my Hebrew birthday a day early, since I was born at night and Jewish calendar days begin at night.)

I felt initially a bit less excited about this birthday than others because I’m passed the stage where age enables you to do things.  Really, it’s a misplaced feeling, because as a significantly younger but wiser friend pointed out, that’s just what the world says I can (legally) do, but each year is what you make of it, and this being my first year of Aliyah, I’ve certainly accomplished a lot.

In Sefer Yehoshua, which we are learning and will complete, Gd willing, on my English birthday, a few times the phrase ויהושוע היה זקן בימים appears.

(ex. Now Joshua was old, advanced in years; and the Lord said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and there remains yet very much land to be possessed.” Chapter 13:1)

בא בימים translates literally to something like “came in years”.  In modern Hebrew you sometimes hear something like ‘איך היום עבר עלי’ which is roughly “Oh how the day passed over me,” which is an awkward translation, but the point is, in the former, the individual is active with his time, in the latter, time passed by, things happened to the individual, rather than the individual making things happen.

It’s been hard for me to break out of some pretty deeply ingrained beliefs that by a certain age a person should have reached certain benchmarks, or certain milestones (again, what “they” say).  On the one hand, this is a mistaken belief.  Each person needs to grow at his or her own pace.  Take for example what happens at age 18.  In the U.S. that is the time to enter college or some sort of post-secondary education, or a “gap year” before such programs, or the time to head right into the workforce.  In Israel, that is the beginning of two or three years of army or national service.  Many Israelis enter university at the same age that I graduated.

I set some pretty ambitious Aliyah goals, and I’m proud to say that I’ve achieved almost all of them, but letting things happen at their own (perhaps more realistic) pace is also important to keep in mind.  It’s a balance, in other words, between בא בימים and הימים עברו עלי.

The Torah seems to believe though that there are certain milestones one should reach at a given age.

This week’s parshah, Naso, begins be detailing the work of the Levites.  It says: “From the age of thirty years and upward, until the age of fifty years, all who come to the legion, service in the Tent of Meeting.”  While some Levites might feel ready earlier and some later, age thirty is the year.

This is even more explicit in Pirkei Avot:

He (Ben Hei Hei) would also say: Five years is the age for the study of Scripture.  Ten for the study of Mishnah.  Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the mitzvot.  Fifteen, for the study of Talmud.  Eighteen, for marriage.  Twenty, to pursue (a livelihood).  Thirty, for strength.  Forty, for understanding… (5:22)

Even here, though, exceptions are made (a Torah scholar, for instance, can wait until he is twenty to marry).

Age is indeed a very funny thing in the Torah.  We see several characters that live for hundreds of years, with abilities that one might not necessarily expect at a given age (Sarah gives birth at age 89, for instance).  She is so surprised that she laughs.  Rabbi Shlomo Arush, says that a woman should have great faith that she can give birth at any age and under any physical condition, if Gd wills it.  That even today, women can be as miraculous and Sarah Imeinu.1

My late grandmother, Helen, ז’ל, fought letting age get in her way, working past retirement age and always keeping a lively spirit.  Having lived through a lot of hardship, she could have let the years had their way with her, but she was always smiling and laughing, not complaining about what was or could have been.  She drove a car and showed me how she could touch her toes well into her 80’s.  “Old” was for other people.  “I don’t feel old,” she’d say.

Some people will read this and think I’m saying that I’m old.  Not by any means – just trying to figure out what I’m doing with these years and not letting the good times pass by.

Women’s Wisdom: The Garden of Peace pg. 199


2 Responses to “Age is Just a Number”

  1. 1 Chananya May 21, 2010 at 4:31 am

    So when IS your hebrew birthday? Avram’s English is May 22…

    • 2 Ilene May 21, 2010 at 2:24 pm

      I realized I left out some critical information there. My Hebrew/Jewish birthday is כ’ד אייר / Iyar 24, and my Gregorian/Secular Birthday is May 25. I got an update about Avram from Geni 🙂

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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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