Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Learning Strength

הוא היה אומר: בן חמש שנים למקרא; בן עשר למשנה; בן שלוש עשרה למצות; בן חמש עשרה לתלמוד; בן שמונה עשרה לחופה; בן עשרים לרדוף; בן שלושים לכוח; בן ארבעים לבינה; בן חמישים לעצה; בן שישים לזקנה; בן שבעים לשיבה; בן שמונים לגבורה; בן תשעים לשוח; בן מאה כאלו מת ועבר ובטל מן העולם. 
My family and some friends know that when it's their birthdays, I often have fun by using whatever number it is to make them feel a little... well, older. For example, when a friend turned 27, I said "Happy 1/3 to 81!" Or when I turned 29 last year, my brother (who is exactly eight and a half years older) turned 37-1/2, so I wished him a happy halfway to 75. Who doesn't love a little mortality?

Later this week, I'll be turning 30. While the math for thirty is definitely easy to have fun with (downhill to sixty, in the middle third toward ninety, a quarter of the way to 120...), I recalled the above mishna in Pirkei Avos and wondered about it. What does koach mean? Koach is not the same as gevurah, but is it so different that it is not until eighty years old that a person achieves gevurah? Looking around a bit, there simply is not a lot written about thirty. Ten to mishna, fifteen to Talmud? Plenty on those. Eighteen to chuppah - sure, there's tons of discussion on that one. Forty to understanding? Yup, lots on that one. But thirty? This is the most to be found, and it's somewhat depressing even when trying to view it positively: 
Thirty is for strength. It the age at which a man's strength is at its peak -- both physically and emotionally. At that age, we see our lives ahead of us, and we feel up to its challenges. We can still solve the world's problems -- not to mention our own.
Well, that part resonates, but it's immediately followed by this:
By forty and the later years, our vigor -- as well as our outlook -- is older and wiser. We've experienced the difficulties of life (beginning of course with teenage children) and recognize the intractability of human nature and of life's problems. As the decades progress -- in ever faster procession -- our physical will and desires fade, and -- to end on a poignant note -- we truly understand life only when we no longer have the strength to live it nor the years to take advantage of it. (And the next generation is not about to listen to our sage advice either. They're still exhausting all the alternatives.)
"It's all downhill from here, boys!" Even when trying to say "No, no - I'll be different. I'm going to keep trying to make an impact", the other part of your brain says, "Pffft. That's the 30-year old in you. That'll pass soon."

But a part of me refuses to give in to this idea, and instead, chooses to understand this idea of koach in a positive way, one which also leads me to read the mishna in a different way. The mishna is somewhat vague and simply lists ages and what they are for, but most discussions change how each line is interpreted - the first lines are what one should learn, but later it is what traits a person acquires. What if instead each line is about what one should be learning at that stage of his life?
  • At five years - learn mikrah; understand where we come from and who we are.
  • At ten years - learn mishna; understand there is more to our tradition than what is written; there is also what we pass down from generation to generation.
  • At thirteen years - learn the mitzvos; understand your responsibilities both positively and negatively in this world.
  • At fifteen years - learn Talmud; understand that nothing is cut and dry; there needs to be thought, logic, discussion, and not everyone will always agree, though decisions must sometimes be made.*
  • At eighteen years - learn marriage. Learn how to interact and communicate properly, learn how to listen, learn how to treat someone, learn how to be responsible... geez, just learn everything
  • At twenty years - learn pursuit. Learn to work hard, whether at (especially at) one's career, one's marriage, raising children... pursuing children! It is the pursuit of one's goals - or goals together with a spouse - that are key to present survival and future success, especially as life throws its curve balls.
At thirty years, learn strength. I'm still learning this, and surely there is yet a lot to learn. To start, though - at least to me - perhaps as one starts to clear the hurdles of their twenties, and now has that ability to begin being strong, this is a reminder to use that strength properly. There are times to apply step forward and apply strength; and there are times when being strong means doing nothing. There are causes that need one's koach behind them; there are situations where people need you to have koach for them; and there are situations where perhaps you just need to find that koach for yourself. In all of these, understanding how to apply this koach appropriately is essential.


As I'm writing this, so much of what has occurred in our own lives over the last few months has become much clearer. Certainly we have needed - and expended - an incredible amount of koach, both for happy times and sad, for good causes and for troubling times... koach that even as little as one or two years ago we simply did not have. 

May we all learn what we need to in life at the appropriate times; and perhaps it is worthwhile to use the wisdom of this mishna in Pirkei Avos as a guide in helping us to do so. 

* A very apropos and related discussion written years ago by Nephtuli T. on this both as it pertains to belief and to halacha is here; in particular, this portion is worth noting as it relates to the above line: "Halacha isn't about searching for truth and is determined by the majority. Once the majority decides a question, the "right answer" is that decision. There is no ontological gap between the decision of the majority and the correct answer."

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