Friday, January 07, 2011

Shemot/Vaiera/Bo 5771: Moses, Akiba and the Midlife Crisis

Last week was my birthday. It doesn't completely explain why I haven't gotten into writing Shlomo's Drash for a while, but it needs to be said. I turned 45 last week. I've been thinking about someone who turned 80, and the last three parshiot, the beginning of Exodus.

7. And Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh. [Exodus 7]

There is a Midrash which tells us that Moses died on his birthday, the Seventh of Adar [b. Megilah 13b] Torah is not much about the first two thirds of Moses' life, it is about the last third. Midrash has been written by everyone from the Sages to Cecil B. DeMille filling in that timeframe of eighty years, the text tells us of his birth, that he was raised by a daughter of Pharaoh, and of killing the Egyptian. The story tells us he fled and lived in Midian as a shepherd and family man, until he came across the burning bush. But that is all it says to account for eighty years of life.

Who was the younger Moses? There are legends that he became king of Ethiopia for a while, and that his engagement to Tzipporah was a series of trials and test by her father. The most enduring legend has to do with his age of a hundred and twenty at his death. [Deuteronomy 34:7] We know the last forty years were spent from the time he faced Pharaoh through the Exodus from Egypt, the time in the wilderness, to his death overlooking the banks of the Jordan River. The rabbis split Moses' earlier eighty years into two pieces: for forty years he was in Egypt, and for forty years he wandered as an exile, settling in Midian at some point.

The legend of Moses' life is intertwined with three of the greatest rabbinic sages who reportedly lived to 120: Hillel, Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai and Rabbi Akiba. These sages’s story also breaks into three parts, which Aggadah also breaks evenly into three parts.

The years of six pairs were equal: Rebekah and Kohath, Levi and Amram, Joseph and Joshua, Samuel and Solomon, Moses and Hillel the Elder, R. Johanan b. Zakkai and R. Akiba. Moses spent forty years in Pharaoh's palace, forty years in Midian, and served Israel forty years. Hillel the Elder came up from Babylon at the age of forty, served [i.e. studied under] the Sages forty years, and served Israel forty years. R. Johanan b. Zakkai engaged in commerce forty years, studied Torah forty years, and served Israel forty years. R. Akiba was an ignoramus forty years, studied forty years, and served Israel forty years.[Genesis Rabbah C:10]

Sometime After forty, our bodies change. Our reproductive abilities start to wane, though our desire to use them may not. Our biological function is complete, yet we have our social function. The social function acts very differently than the needs of merely passing genes. But how do we do this? What is our role if not biological?

Midlife and midlife crisis in my mind are synonymous they are the answer to that question. Usually when we think of a midlife crisis we think of someone far too old trying to reclaim a youth they no longer can have. It’s stereotypically the sports car and fling with a younger member of the opposite gender. But I think a more general and far more constructive way of describing mid-life is the time when we re-define our role as a human being. Granted part of that might be wanting to go backwards, but it’s a lot more about going forwards, dropping a lot of the baggage we no longer need and moving forward into the future, where we propagate memes instead of genes.

Monday morning I put on a sweater that didn't fit. Partially it was the several pounds I've put on my frame since I bought the sweater many years ago, but that was minor. If clothes make the man, then this sweater didn't fit me because it no longer made the man that is me. Rummaging through my closet for another sweater, I ended up cleaning the sweater shelf out -- many of the sweaters didn't fit. I didn't even have to put them on to know that.

For the past month, I have been thinking about my future and figuring out where I'm going to be when I'm eighty. Am I going to be like Moses? Am I going to be like Abraham? Thinking about both of those I have to remember the question the Hasidic rabbi Zusya was so scared of on his death bed. When he reached the afterlife, he was not afraid of being asked "Why were you not Moses or Abraham?” Instead he was terrified of being asked "Why were you not Zusya?"

Right now, I feel if I would be asked that question, I would have no answer because I am not me. I realize there is no answer, only living one's life so that fearful question is never asked. In the last few years so much has changed in my life. I have a job so nebulous it literally sulks on the corner of the organization chart. Like Zuzya's question, another question I fear is the question "what do you do.?" because I really have no idea. I think I am trying to create products for a profession I have so little knowledge of. I often feel like a blind painter being instructed by the sighted how to paint a copy of the Sistine ceiling. Late in my life I have found the love of my life, and I'm still trying to figure out how to have a relationship with such a strong, brilliant, beautiful woman. But I have never been this far in a relationship before, and I am often stumbling my way through. Like Moses off in a desert by himself, I feel very lost with no idea of direction.

Moses at the beginning of midlife dressed like an Egyptian and acted like an Egyptian, so much so we read that Ruel's daughters refer to him as an Egyptian[Exodus 2:19]. Yet we read this week of a Moses with a strong identity to Beni Yisroel, enough to coordinate a mass exodus from Egypt, and enough to convince the people to perform the ritual we will call today the Passover Seder. It was in midlife I believe he learned what he need to move from his youth to the leader he was in old age. So too with Rabbi Akiba, who never left the academy from forty until sixty four according to the Sages. When he left, he was a sage himself.

Moses learned in midlife by being a shepherd. Akiba who started life as a shepherd, learned by being a student, and then a teacher. Both became phenomenal leaders, as did Hillel and Johanan ben Zakkai. Midlife is the time to realize you are not young anymore, and it's time to have a very different identity for the rest of your life. It's time to find it, and find who you will be in that time left on the planet.

I look at life and think there may be two ways to live a life the one of Solomon and the one of Moses. The rabbis mention that the three books of the Tanach written by Solomon are written in three stages of life: The Song of Songs is the joyful optimism and sensuality of Youth, Proverbs the widsom of the middle years, and Kohelet the bitterness and futility of old age. As wise as Solomon was, Solomon supposedly died at fifty two, with his last words bitter and futile ones, though he was not very old. In my mind, this is a path of Kohelet as a life burnt out, who did everything for gain, and not for something greater than gain. Yet Akiba and Moses seem so different than this, and aspire to a different path. There is the passion of youth, the change of middle age, and the leadership, the Sageing, of a very ripe old age of 120.

Even though we have no choice as to the day of our death, we still have a choice: the road of Solomon or of Akiba and Moses. I have had the privilege of meeting a few sages in my life. There are those who I wish I had met as well, but there are some I wish I had met, like my fiancĂ©'s mentor before his passing away last year. I have met those who live, if that is any kind of living, their last years bitter. I would rather be a sage with a full life than bitter and angry at the world. I do not know where the next thirty five years will take me. Will I make it to What the Perkei Avot calls “the age of strength?” I’ve made a few decisions that point me in some directions I hope will send me down the road of Moses and not the road of Solomon. Somewhere along the line I hope I learn enough about myself and do enough not to have to answer the question "Why were you not Shlomo?"