In and of themselves, decadal birthdays are pretty insignificant. But they are excellent occasions for surprise parties — harder and harder to pull off with each passing decade. And more than that, they are occasions for stocktaking — in particular, of what has been learned about oneself and the world until now; for setting an agenda for the coming decade, in light of that acquired wisdom, such as it is; and perhaps an occasion for pushing a reset button or two.
The life lesson uppermost in my mind right now is: how quickly it passes. That is particularly true if one has a very good long-term memory, as I do. Events of more than half a century ago seem like just yesterday. With my 50th high school reunion a few years back, I reconnected with a few old friends, and in those relationships, I find myself inevitably the unofficial historian, as I regale them with memories of how dumb we were. (In my day, we actually expected to learn a great deal as life went along.)
I'm not sure that all my old friends or even my siblings and mother trust my memories, but they have little choice but to go along, as those memories are so vividly recalled. Just this morning, my mother tried to dispute my memory of seeing her scrubbing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees on rubber pads.
Actually, Chazal did attach significance to the milestone birthdays. Seventy, they teach, signifies having attained a ripe old age (Pirkei Avos 5:25). Frankly, I don't feel I've quite reached that point. True, vitamins, diet supplements, healthy green vegetables, and trainers have become an increasingly large Rosenblum budget item — along with birthday presents for grandchildren. And my walking partners and I do seem to be getting passed more frequently on our walks around Har Nof than in former times.
But I can still climb up and down four flights of stairs, without too much huffing and puffing, and get through my trainer's paces, all of which involve standing on uneven surfaces while executing the exercises, which he assures me is good for my brain function and not just my balance. I hope he is right.
RECOGNITION THAT TIME IS LIMITED is valuable, though perhaps more so for young people than their elders, for whom the reminders are readily at hand. It forces one to focus on what one still wants to get done.
On the other hand, it is also a good idea not to become too obsessed by the limitation of time remaining lest it paralyze one from trying new things or being open to long-term projects. The literary critic Edmund Wilson serves as something of a model in this respect. Towards the end of his life, he embarked on the intensive study of both Hebrew and Russian, both of which languages were totally new for him and involved mastering new alphabets.
His tombstone concluded "Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik," with which we complete the reading of each sefer in the Torah. And his knowledge of Russian was good enough — or so he thought — to sharply criticize a translation from Russian by Vladimir Nabokov, then considered by many the greatest living Russian stylist.
Near the end of college, I went to speak to a beloved professor. All my efforts to delay going to law school had failed. And I whined that I had still not read Johan Huizinga or Jacob Burckhardt, two cultural historians about whom my professor had written, and now might never get a chance to do so.
He looked at me with bemusement before offering the consolation, "Jonathan, on your death bed, you will not be worrying about whether you managed to read The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy."
I suppose he was right. I never did read more than a few pages, and it has been many decades since I worried about it.
But that is not how it is with a believing Jew. Whatever masechtas we learned in this world, we will grasp with infinitely more clarity in the World to Come. But those that we never opened and did not labor over will be cut off from us for eternity. In short, I do expect that all the tractates and seforim I did not learn will weigh heavily on me in the final summing up.
And that entails developing a plan to fill in the gaps. I know myself well enough to be sure that daf yomi is not the solution for me. But if anyone knows of a good amud yomi shiur accessible by Zoom, I'd appreciate the tip.
I HAD ALWAYS ASSUMED that I would embark on a new course of learning upon reaching 70. But now that that milestone has arrived, I realize that it is easier said than done and will involve many hard decisions.
Publishing two major biographies covering the teshuvah movement of which my wife and I were part in the last 18 months — Rav Noach Weinberg: Torah Revolutionary and A Tap on the Shoulder: Rabbi Meir Schuster and the Magical Era of Teshuvah — has been immensely gratifying, especially after a hiatus of over a decade. And there is still a large collection of 100 songs of praise to admirable people set to come out in the coming months.
In the past, the completion of any large project was always followed by the question: What's next? And the truth is that I'm still eager to immerse myself in a study of all the many different groups of Jews profoundly influenced by Rav Moshe Shapira ztz"l. But who knows whether that will happen. And a few other less personal projects, but still of interest, have been mooted.
But the question has shifted from "What's next?" to "Should there be a next?" For any new book will inevitably detract from the time that could be spent in a dozen different aspects of Torah learning. There always has to be a last book in every career. Thomas Sowell published six books or so in his eighties, but he has no obligation to finish Shas at least once.
One thing I do know is that I will not give up this column — at least not voluntarily. Indeed, just a few weeks back, I undertook a second weekly column. There were simply too many piles of material accumulating on my study floor on issues I wanted to address and had not gotten to writing about.
Without the column(s), I'm afraid I would feel oveir batul. That feeling does not come from a point of strength — the feeling that I have something of such overwhelming importance or originality to convey — but from the joy of connecting to readers that a weekly column provides. The older I grow, the greater that need for connection.
Recognition of that need has at least helped me answer one riddle. All Jews are supposed to have one particular mitzvah that is uniquely theirs — a mitzvah that they feel drawn to perform in a mehudardig fashion. For a long time, I have wondered, "What is my mitzvah?" And I never came up with a satisfactory answer, or discovered a mitzvah that drew me in some unique fashion.
Finally, I think I have identified one to which I am naturally drawn. (I hope that one's personal mitzvah does not have to be one that involves overcoming lots of bad middos or be particularly hard.) I've discovered that I particularly enjoy making new friends, and for the very reason that I cherish my column: I share parts of myself with people easily, and many people respond to that ease on my part by sharing of themselves. Perhaps as a corollary to the capacity for friendship, I have a talent for seeing the good in people and complimenting them for the remarkable things they do. Too many people do not naturally compliment others, even though it is a costless mitzvah and lifts the recipient. So those will be my mitzvahs — making new friends and complimenting people.
AS UPON REACHING previous milestone birthdays, I'm struck with amazement and gratitude at how well life has worked out, bli ayin hara, even though I realized none of my childhood ambitions. And that is a consequence of two decisions made within months of one another over 40 years ago — to marry my wife and together to take on a life of Torah u'mitzvos.
No one goes through life without their share of losses, disappointments, and failures. But to be constantly overwhelmed and excited by the Jews among whom I live and by the Torah that I learn; and to be able to celebrate my birthday after Tishah B'Av with children and grandchildren whose greatest excitement is to gather together with one another. Who could ask for more?