On Turning Sixty
The sixtieth birthday is a big one Jews, for it means that one has avoided at least one of the definitions of kares – premature death. And with it one is officially welcomed into the ranks of zikna, old age (Avos 5:25), however unworthy one may feel of admission just yet.
At fifty, I joked that I was now too old to die young. Now, I'm even too old for a mid-life crisis.
Other than finding it hard to believe that a decade has passed since I wrote "On Turning Fifty" – the passage of time seems to accelerate sharply with advancing years – my chief feeling on this latest milestone is gratitude.
Above all, I'm grateful that I have no desire to go back in time. I wouldn't claim that I've never been happier – who can remember or compare? – just that I would not wish to be any other age right now. When I watch my children chasing after their young ones or listen to them complain of sleepless nights, I wonder how I could have had the energy for that. If I wonder aloud, they are likely to answer, "You didn't, Abba. Ima did that." But, in any event, I have no desire to switch places with them.
By fifty, I had already made peace with the fact that I would not be the first Jewish president. And contemplating the course of America over the last decade, I can add, without reservation, Baruch Hashem.
I expressed the hope at fifty that my wife and I would merit to marry off over half our children over the decade to come, and that by the end of the decade the grandchildren would be coming in bunches. And those prayers were answered.
The beginning of zikna, at least, strikes me as much like the Maharal's description of the special Simcha of Sukkos – the holiday of gathering – where after all the hard labor of the year one can now contemplate the fruits of those labors, as well as express gratitude to Hashem, without whom those labors would have been for naught.
With respect to the individual achievements of our children, I try to follow the example of the father of a young rosh yeshiva in my neighborhood. Once I said to him, "You must be so proud of your son." To which he replied, "Not proud. Grateful."
My inability to see much of myself in any of my children, especially the more disciplined among them – helps guard against any such pride and increases the gratitude. Perhaps the greatest happiness is the realization that we – my wife and I -- have produced a family out of many diverse parts. And that each new addition has been seamlessly absorbed into that unity. One sees it in the way the brothers dance with each other at their respective chasanos, and the efforts my daughter and her sister-in-laws put into making sheva berachos for the new couple. But most of all in the way every one is content on family vacations to just sit around over the barbecue talking to one another and watching the kids play.
Happily life has not yet become only a matter of savoring the fruits of long ago efforts. There is plenty of chiddush. Every trip abroad seems to produce a new friend – hopefully for a lifetime. Scarcely a month passes without the discovery of some stimulating new thinker or a set of shiurim that uplift. And there are still plenty of ideas I want to share, even if recall of the words needed to do so is sometimes delayed.
One relief of advancing years is that the physical side becomes less importunate, less in control. I cannot even fantasize about a single possession that I think would make me happier – with the possible exception of apartments for the kids. That doesn't mean that the yetzer has run out of tricks. I've interviewed enough people whose greatest achievements were behind them to know that the need for kavod, unlike ta'ava, often increases with age.
At fifty, I could boast of being able to run further and lift more than at forty. I won't be able to make the same boast at sixty. My orthopedist tells me it will take surgery and six weeks on crutches if I ever want to run without pain again.
But even the intimations of mortality found in signs of physical decline are not without their benefits. They remind me that projects like finishing Shas can no longer be put off to the future because the future is not unlimited. Now is the time.
Best of all has been sharing most of the journey and, hopefully decades to come, with my best friend, the one person with whom there can never be too much time alone.
Sign of the Times
The New York Times descent into pure advocacy journalism continues apace. Increasingly, the news stories in the once respected Grey Lady serve only to set up the talking points for the paper's editorial page.
Reporter Scott Shane's July 24 news story, "Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S.," provides a case in point. The only spotlight is one of Shane's own imagining. He describes Robert Spencer, who was cited 64 times in Anders Behring Breivik's 1500-page manifesto, as having been put on the "defensive" by Breivik's murderous rampage. Yet he does not quote one statement from Spencer or anyone else sounding the slightest bit defensive. Nor does he argue that Breivik's actions somehow demonstrate that the warnings are overblown or based on incorrect facts -- i.e., that those quoted have anything about which to be defensive.
Shane cites unnamed "critics" who supposedly used the Norwegian tragedy to demonstrate the manner in which "the intense spotlight on the threat of attacks from Islamic militants has unfairly vilified Muslim Americans, while dangerously playing down the threats of attacks from other domestic radicals." Yet he offers not one shred of evidence about the comparative threat. As for the impact of the alleged vilification of Muslims, the 2009 FBI crime statistics included only 107 anti-Islamic "hate crimes" against Muslims in the entire United States, about one-ninth the number of anti-Jewish "hate crimes." And that was the year of the Ft. Hood massacre and a number of other Muslim terrorist plots uncovered in time by the FBI.
Shane also attempts to use the Norwegian tragedy as an argument against the hearings on radicalization of American Muslims currently being conducted by the House Committee on Homeland Security, chaired by Cong. Peter King (Rep.-N.Y.). "Despite the Norway killings," he intones, the hearings will go on as scheduled," as if there were some logical inconsistency between the two events or the Norwegian tragedy somehow proved that there is no radicalization of American Muslims taking place.
King was not impressed, and began the third round of hearings with a firm denunciation of the Times.
Another Take on Baseless Hatred
As we contemplate our role in rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash, in this period of mourning for its loss, we each have to come to grips with sinas chinam (literally, free hatred), which Chazal identify as the cause of that destruction. Most frequently, the term is defined as "causeless hatred," which has always left me somewhat puzzled because very few people will ever admit to hating someone for no reason at all. No doubt the host who hated Bar Kamtza could have offered a long list of reasons justifying his hatred.
Rene Levy, a religious professor emeritus of neuropharmacology at the University of Washington, offers another possible explanation in Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do About It (Gefen Publishing House). In his description, sinas chinam is that part of the strong negative feelings we might have about another Jew that is excessive.
We hold our anger too long; we do not take the steps recommended by the Torah to deal with our hatred, for instance, by airing our grievance with the one who has angered us; we spread hatred among Jews through our gossip about the object of our hatred; or we fail to balance our anger towards a fellow Jew against the feeling of mutual responsibility and closeness for our fellow Jews that is inherent in the concept of areivus.
In short, the "free" element of our hatred is all that which is over and beyond that which can possibly be justified by anything done to us. When reframed in that fashion, it should be a lot easier for most of us to identify where our work lies in rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash.