An ode to a 50th birthday
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Jerusalem Post International Edition
August 10, 2001
Fifty is not old, but it is unmistakeably not young either. There is nothing one can do at fifty – not even die or be elected prime minister – and still be considered precocious. The traditional Jewish blessing ``until a hundred and twenty" and the exploding number of centenarians notwithstanding, it is hard to tell oneself with conviction at fifty, ``Well, half down and half to go."
Turning fifty, after all, forces one to confront the fact that few, if any, of the ambitions of youth will be realized. I will not be the first Jewish president, nor the first chareidi prime minister. At this point, I would settle for speaking Hebrew well enough to mix it up on Popolitika.
If, by fifty, most of the dreams of youth have turned out to be impossible, there are still compensations. Life at fifty has a past and a present, as well as a future. In place of hopes, there are also achievements. No matter how bad a botch I might make of the rest of my life, the seven books and hundreds of articles written over the last decade are on the shelf. They cannot be taken away.
(The children sitting around the dining room table are a different matter. The capacity for incompetent parenting would seem to be something one never outgrows.)
At fifty, the future is no longer a vast expanse. One’s horizons tend to extend no further than covering the end of the month overdraft. One no longer anticipates a future of amazing adventures and unpredicted surprises. Short of Aharon Barak tapping me for the Supreme Court, I can think of few things that would really surprise me, and those that would, I hope never come to pass.
I’m curious about who my children will marry and what my grandchildren will be like, but not in the way I obsessively wondered as a child who my future wife would be and what she was doing at that precise moment.
Gone is the impatience for the future that etches each day of childhood indelibly in the memory in a way that the far more eventful years of adulthood are not. There is a great deal to look forward to, but each event can be savored in due course. No need to rush things.
Sukkot, the holiday of the gathering, is the happiest time of the year. And it no longer seems wildly implausible that what is yet to come will prove the happiest time of life. Over the next decade, my wife and I can look forward to escorting at least half our children to the chuppah and to a trickle of grandchildren at the beginning of the decade turning to a stream at its end.
A few years ago, an 80-year-old John Glenn recapitulated his flight into space of nearly four decades earlier. All marvelled at his physical condition, and how bestowed on him our society’s highest compliment: his body still functions like a much younger man.
The Jewish view, as explicated by the Maharal of Prague, is just the opposite. The respect that we pay to age is precisely because the physical forces are no longer what they once were. In youth, the physical forces of the body tend to dominate a person. As those physical forces wane in power, however, there is more occasion for one’s more spiritual side to take over. That is the wisdom we associate with old age.
About the physical decline there can be no doubt. A good basketball game is no longer one in which my team wins or even in which I play well; it’s sufficient to find myself still breathing at the end. I find myself torturing my body on machines in ways that I would have thought ludicrous in the long ago days when I thought nothing of hours of tennis under a blistering sun and had never heard of declining muscle mass.
About the infusion of wisdom, there is more cause for doubt. Moments of brilliant insight do not seem to strike with the same weekly regularity that they used come to Robert Young on Father Knows Best.
Still and all, I suspect that the Maharal has hit upon the deeper source of my present contentment: The older one gets the less one feels thrall to unbidden impulses and the more capable of controlling one’s life using one’s divinely granted intellect.
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum
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