My Birthday Shabbos
Today is my birthday Shabbos, and with it, is the realization that I’m not getting any younger; in fact the opposite is true. However, I’m encouraged by the heroes we read about in the Torah this time of year—Moses and Aaron. When Moses and Aaron are about to go to Pharaoh, and demand that he let their people go—all of a sudden at that dramatic moment—there’s a time out in the story (Ex. 7:7) and we’re told their age—Aaron is 83, and Moses is 80. Why, at the very beginning of their careers as leaders of the Jewish people does the Torah pause to tell us their age?
My guess is, the Torah wants us to appreciate that they started their careers at a time when most people have already retired…to appreciate the fact that even in one’s 80s one still has enormous potential, and capacity for living.
100 years ago this passage about the ages of Moses and Aaron might have seemed like a bubbeh-maise—a fairy tale—because the average life expectancy was 42. But in my lifetime, the average life expectancy in America has zoomed up to 81 for women, and 76 for men—who, as you know, are the weaker sex. Scientists now speak confidently of the possibility that by the end of the 21st century, most human beings will live to 100 and some up to 150 years—replacing worn out organs with engineered new ones. Most children born now will live to see the 22nd century. Israeli scientists are at the forefront of this research. It reminds me of the following Israeli joke: A man goes in to a life insurance company and asks to buy a policy. They ask him how old he is and he says, “75.”
“75? We don’t sell life insurance to people who are 75!”
The man says, “But you sold one to my father and he’s 95?”
They check the records and see that they made a mistake and did sell life insurance to his father. So they turn to him and say, “Alright, we will let his policy stand, provided he comes in next Tuesday and takes a physical.”
The man says, “He can’t come in on Tuesday. He’s going to his father’s wedding that day.”
“He’s going to his father’s wedding? How old is his father?”
The man says, “125.”
“125? Why does he want to get married at that age?”
And the man says, “He doesn’t, but his parents are making him!”
As my mother—who wore high heels till she was 91—was fond of saying, “Age is only a number.” So while I’m getting older I’m far from done yet—more about that soon. For now let me share with you an important question about birthdays posed by Rabbi Simon Jacobson of the Meaningful Life Center: Would the world be any different if you weren’t born? Do you wake up in the morning feeling like you have an important role to play in the grand scheme of things? Do you believe that if you were to show up someplace or not, or make some kind of contribution or not, it would not fundamentally affect the world or the people that live in it? Think about this for a minute. If you don’t feel like you make a difference in the world, how excited can you be about the things you do and the choices you make? How committed or passionate can you be?
If this describes you, let me share with you a message that will change your life. I begin with a quote from Mark Twain: “The 2 most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” How do we discover why we were born? The Lubavitcher Rebbe, a”h, tells us why in response to the question he was asked as to whether it is permitted for Jews to celebrate a birthday—a secular celebration. His response was absolutely exquisite: “Of course one should celebrate a birthday because [and listen carefully to these words] your birthday is the day when Gd decided that the world cannot live without you.” [Repeat]
You and your soul are needed because every person has a mission to fulfill during his/her lifetime. That’s why Gd brought your soul to this world. Wow! Like musical notes in a grand Divine composition, each of us has our unique music to play. Your birth is Gd’s way of saying “you matter.” Isn’t that stunning?
When I ask people the question of whether they really matter? the knee-jerk response is: “Of course I matter—I feel that I’m important. My family, my friends and my work colleagues value me.” So let me rephrase the question: Would it make a difference if you were never born? Remember, before you were born, it would not have been a catastrophe if you did not appear—no one would miss you because no one was expecting you.
The only absolute reason why you and I truly matter is because we were chosen by Gd to come to this world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was teaching in his response that, “Yes, you matter—not because you think you’re important…not because others tell you that you are…not because of your wealth, your status, your looks, your performance or your talent. You are important because Gd put you here. You are an indispensable musical note in life’s symphony. Irreplaceable! Period!”
This thought changes everything. When you know that you and your contribution are crucial, it infuses all that you do with a compelling sense of urgency. I believe that this simple, clear message is preventive medicine for much of the tragedy and suffering that plague our world—shootings like this week’s at Parkland FL, the hatred, the opioid crisis, the wars. We need to reach out to every person, every child, every parent, educator and leader, with this message: “You matter. Your life and what you do with it matters. You are indispensable to Gd and to this world!” And you don’t become dispensable just because you reach the age of 60 or 70, 80 or 90. The fact that you’re still alive says that you still have a crucial role to play in this life.
Yogi Berra, in addressing a university graduating class offered this pearl of wisdom: “As you embark on the path of life, when you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Billy Crystal, in a scene in the movie “City Slickers,” captured this feeling so well when addressing the kids in his child’s class: Value this time in your life, kids. It goes by so fast. When you’re a teenager, you think you can do anything, and you do. Your 20’s are a blur. 30’s—you raise a family, you make a little money, you think to yourself, “What happened to my 20’s?” 40’s—you grow a little pot belly, you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud. One of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. 50’s—you have minor surgery. You call it a “procedure” but its surgery. 60’s—you have major surgery. The music is still loud but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it anyway. 70’s—you and the wife retire to Ft. Lauderdale. You start eating dinner at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. You have lunch around 10...breakfast the night before. Spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the urinal and muttering, “How come the kids don’t call? How come the kids don’t call?
This really does not describe where I am. I’m not in Ft. Lauderdale and I don’t each lunch at 10am. And yet, there’s no getting away from it…as you get older you have aches and pains in parts of your body you never knew existed. You start opening the refrigerator door and forget what you were looking for. It’s with joy that you celebrate your life as you get older, but it’s also with trepidation—a feeling that this is as good as it’s going to be…that from here on in, you’re dealing with the great unknown. How do you deal with this? This is the fork in the road. You can choose to follow the path of Ezekiel Emanuel or Leonard Cohen.
Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of Rahm Emmanuel, is one of our country’s most respected bio-ethicists and health policy experts—an architect of Obama Care. In an article for Atlantic Magazine, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” he argues that, “those who live past 75 are no longer really productive members of society, they become a burden on our country’s health resources, and that living longer is only going to make matters worse.” Really? So that’s it. By 75 the party is over. Turn off the lights and prepare to die! Wow, what an attitude!
Leonard Cohen, the famous singer/songwriter died about a year ago at 82. When he celebrated his 80th birthday he announced he would start smoking again! Cohen knew he was not going to be here forever. But he was not going to allow his concern for the future to spoil the present. He’s from the school of thought that my grandmother belonged to. She used to tell us: Leb un lach, “Live and laugh.” Chap arein, “grab it all in while you can.” In fact, in her 90’s, even though her cholesterol was over 300, she went to bed every night with a pint of Hagen Daz chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream! When one of us would say something to her, she would respond: “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna die young!”
You know me by now…I don’t have to tell you which path I plan on taking! I look to Abraham who heard the Divine call and left everything behind to begin his career as father of the Jewish people at age 75! I look to Moses who, as I said, began his career leading the Jewish people out of Egypt at age 80! But today’s society has perverted this idea into a mockery. You tell me: when was the last time you heard a story or a joke that made an older person look or sound good?
Most are like the story of a group of 40-year-old buddies discussing where they should meet for dinner. Let me read it to you: They agreed that they should meet at the Bombay Bistro because the waitresses there have tight blouses and really short skirts. 10 years later, at 50 years of age, they agreed again that they should meet at the Bombay Bistro because the food there is very good and the wine selection is excellent. 10 years later at 60 years of age, the group once again agrees to meet at the Bombay Bistro because they can eat there in peace and quiet and the restaurant is smoke-free. 10 years later, at 70 years of age, they agree to meet at the Bombay Bistro because the restaurant is wheelchair accessible and they even have an elevator. 10 years later, at 80 years of age, the group meets again and agrees to meet at the Bombay Bistro because everyone’s heard it’s good and they’ve never been there before.
You can make all the jokes you want but the fact remains that people like Churchill, deGaulle and Ben Gurion led their countries at an age when most men are dead and buried. George Bernard Shaw was still writing in his 90’s. Verdi created his operas “Otello” and “Falstaff” at 74 and 80. Toscanini was conducting in his 80’s; Grandma Moses became a painter when most are retired; and Pope Francis ascended the Vatican throne in his 78th year.
You see, Yogi Berra was right! There are times on the path of life when you come to a fork in the road. As you get older there are lots of things you start losing control over. But that’s not true of everything! Some choose the path of Ezekiel Emanuel and others the path of Leonard Cohen. You know the path I have chosen.
Every few months we hear of the running of this marathon or that one and there are always several runners over the age of 80. Don’t get me wrong. I like Bruce Springsteen but I was not “Born to Run!” Still there’s a lot of life in me, a lot of laughter in me, a lot of love in me. I’m not going anywhere! So stick with me. As the John Lennon put it, “Grow old along with me…the best is yet to be!” Amen!