Does life begin a 40? Columbia University Professor Walter Plitkin emphatically answered
“yes” in his famous and often quoted 1932 bestseller “Life Begins at 40.” The Torah
agrees. Life does begin at 40 – though not in the same way that Professor Plitkin
maintains it does. 40 is a richly symbolic number in the Torah, associated with the
transformation and creation of life.
The mystics explain why the number 40 was chosen by Judaism for this special
symbolism. There were four levels of creation, ten divine emanations in each. I readily
admit to a very limited understanding of the relevant Kabbalistic material. But then again,
I am 37; and Kabbalah, say many medieval authorities, should not be studied before the
age of – you guessed correctly – the age of 40. Let us study a few examples of 40 in
Judaism, and, more importantly, develop the Torah’s idea that “life begins at 40” – not at
age 40, but at 40 nonetheless.
The number 40 is ubiquitous in the Torah, and it consistently underscores themes of
transformation and renewal. Yom Kippur, for instance, is the 40th day of the repentance
period. The 40th day? How so? Like each of the festivals, Yom Kippur is a holiday with
history. In the Torah, we are told that Moses ascended Sinai to commune with God for 40
days, to receive the life - and world- transforming Torah. Moses, we know, returned to a
people worshipping a golden calf. The tablets were smashed, the 40 of transformation
was stymied. On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Moses climbed the mountain to convene with G-d
again, and Moses returned 40 days later – on the day that we observe as Yom Kippur,
the 10th day of Tishrei. Moses’ appearance with a second set of tablets signified that G-d
had forgiven His people, that the Jews’ repentance was accepted, that people would
receive a new lease on life.
A few more citations of 40 in Judaism should suffice to establish the fact of this number’s
significance. In the days of Noah, G-d decreed the destruction and rebirth of the world.
The storm lasted for 40 days. Many centuries later, standing at the threshold of a new
national existence, the nascent Jewish people prepared to cross the Jordan River and
settle the promised Land. But before doing so, Moses sent the meraglim, the spies, to
scout out the Land. Not surprisingly, as a prelude to a transformative event, the
reconnaissance mission was 40 days long. The spies, though, maligned the Land,
caused panic among the people, and G-d decreed that only a new generation, or put
differently, only a renewed Am Yisrael would enter the Land. For this transformation, 40
years of desert wandering – one year for each day of the spies’ mission – was
necessary. 40 is required to usher in a new reality; a new world; a new life.
The Talmud (in Tractate Menachot) tells us that just as the Torah was given in 40 days,
so too is the soul imparted in the fetus after 40 days. That is, the fetus achieves in
spiritual stature, its neshama, it’s “life,” after 40 days. There are authorities who permit
abortion, under certain circumstances, before day 40; After all, only after 40 days does
this bundle of cells become a spiritually significant being. Which brings me to a final
example of 40: The Mikvah, the ritual bath that must contain 40 seah of rainwater (a seah
is a typical halachic measurement that corresponds to approximately 5 gallons). Owing
to the remarkable generosity of the Rennert family and to their renowned commitment to
promoting this Mitzvah, our community is now home to an exquisite Mikvah. The Mikvah
offers an obvious opportunity to educate about and promulgate the important Mitzvah of
family purity. But beyond this, the physical presence of this ritual bath will enable the
Mikvah to whisper her spiritual message to all of us throughout the year.
What is the meaning of this Mitzvah? What is the Mikvah’s religious purpose? We could
intuit, if we didn’t already know, that a ritual bath with 40 measures of water must be a
place of transformation and rebirth. This is indeed the case. After all, who goes to a
Mikvah? In Temple times, Mikvah immersion was an integral part of regaining ritual purity;
especially important for Kohanim, but also, at times, vital for all Jews. Restored purity
conferred new status on the individual; he was spiritually refreshed, reborn. Nowadays,
the Mikvah is only halakhically required for converts and married women. When a gentile
converts, he or she takes on a new religious identity. A convert, say the Sages, is like a
newborn child. What about a woman, whose visits are coordinated with her monthly
cycle? Quite simply, a woman’s physical change at that time of the month indicates that
her body’s preparation to create life was not actualized. The ritual impurity that results
reflects the Torah’s recognition of this loss of potential life. The Mikvah’s 40 seah of
water soothe and restore; they help a woman become sensitive to the potent, spiritual
force inherent in her body’s ability to create life.
Hasidic men, unwilling to cede the Mikvah experience entirely to women, immerse every
erev Shabbat, to elevate themselves in preparation for the holy day. Ashkenazic men
typically limit their Mikvah use to the days immediately prior to Rosh Hashana and Yom
Kippur. In tandem with repentance, the Mikvah helps us refashion our inner selves.
In every instance that the Mikvah is used, transformation and rebirth is what is desired.
According to many Kabbalistic sources, the Mikvah is likened to a womb; you enter to be
reborn. Hasidic masters (e.g. the Avnei Nezer) note that human beings are creatures of
dry land. We cannot survive submerged under water. Accordingly, when we immerse
ourselves in the Mikvah, we temporarily remove ourselves from a livable environment.
When we emerge from the Mikvah waters, we can breathe again; we are restored,
renewed, reborn. The Mikvah powerfully pronounces that personal spiritual renaissance
is possible. Our synagogue recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, but our Mikvah will
ensure that our community remains forever 40.
An adapted excerpt from Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier’s Kol Nidre 5768 address.
|Life Begins at 40
by Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier
|at Fifth Avenue Synagogue
5 East 62nd Street - New York City
Mikvah@5as.org (212) 753-6058