A New Life Span (Sukkot 5781)

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Sukkot Morning 5781

Did you hear it? The Book of Life was just sealed.

5 days ago as dark descended on Yom Kippur, our Yizkor candle went out. Once again already, our frailty stands before us, challenging, inviting.

What is our lifespan? What is the length of our days? Per Psalm 144 with a little gender equality inserted…:

Adonai, what is a human being

that You should care about her,


that You should think of her?

A human is like a breath;

her days are like a passing shadow.

In the timing of the universe, the human life span lasts a moment.

Ecclesiastes, traditionally read on Sukkot, begins:

The words of Koheleth son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile!

What real value is there for a man

In all the gains he makes beneath the sun?

In the timing of the universe, the human life span lasts a moment. The question ever before us and particularly pointed now given Covid-19, unrest, economic closures, and Memorial services: how do we make that life meaningful?

The Mishnah lays out the ideal life span…well, for a male:

At 5 years of age the study of Scripture;

At 10 the study of Mishnah;

At 13 subject to the commandments;

At 15 the study of Talmud;

At 18 the bridal canopy;

At 20 for pursuit [of livelihood];

At 30 the peak of strength;

At 40 wisdom;

At 50 able to give counsel;

At 60 old age;

At 70 fullness of years;

At 80 the age of “strength”;

At 90 a bent body;

At 100, as good as dead and gone completely out of the world. (Avot 5.20)

Many times, we have discussed the message of that lifespan. How focused on study they were – a singular focus through age 17. Yes, it is a problem that our character gets married at age 18 before earning a livelihood at age 20. Unless there is a sizable trust fund, they are living in the in-laws’ basement. We wonder how they were so advanced to have wisdom at age 40 and are offended that the only description at age 90 is “bent”. We won’t even discuss what they say about age 100…

The ideal Jewish male’s life in the year 200 moved from milestones to a focus on the gift of wisdom – well, at least until he was 60 and the breakdown of the body.

What if this were the life span:

At 5, learning to ride a bike and starting religious school.

At 8, going to summer camp despite my fear.

At 9, going back to summer camp because it is my second home.

At 13, after Bat Mitzvah, becoming a madrich at religious school.
At 17, getting my license with its freedom and responsibility

and realizing that my Black friend has to have “the talk” that I don’t.

At 18, starting college.  But maybe college isn’t for me… so I will start trade school or go straight into the job market.  I’ll probably be criticized for that.

At 22, taking a job that influences the rest of my work life.

At 31, meeting my love.

At 37, taking on the name Daddy.

At 42, being downsized and its accompanying fear.

At 43, starting new training and finding work in a field I never imagined I would enter.  I think I’m content.

At 47, beginning to volunteer in the community

At 49, the 13th anniversary of not having a drink.

At 63, taking on a new name: “Grandpa.”

At 64, burying one of my closest friends who was supposed to retire next year but died suddenly of a heart attack.

At 65, enjoying retirement cake and a new beginning.

At 67, going to coffee to celebrate the 4th anniversary of a friendship who is ½ my age.

At 69, celebrating 5 years in remission.

At 72, the 3rd anniversary of learning to play Bridge.

At 73 being celebrated as “volunteer of the year.”

At 77, learning how to use Zoom.

At 84, calling the person I met freshman year of high school to celebrate our 70 years of friendship.

At 92, celebrating our 60th anniversary surrounded by our 2 children and 5 grandchildren plus nieces, nephews and friends.

This life span speaks of relationships and the hard work of leaving addiction behind,

struggling with illness, and finding meaningful work both paid and volunteer. The entirety of this lifespan is growing and stretching, looking forward while marking milestones. Every year adds and imagines and reaches out and discovers life.

Next week, we will bring together Yizkor: memory with Simcha: joy. What is our lifespan?  What is the length of our days? What we make it.


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