By Yochanan Gordon
Forty is a milestone birthday. It is such a momentous occasion that despite the passage of two months since my Hebrew birthday on the 10th day of Sivan and just a month since my Gregorian birthday, we are still trying to figure out how best to celebrate it. That led to the following quandary: if someone celebrates a birthday before or after the actual date does that constitute a birthday celebration? Before anything else, I need to allay the concerns of the Chassidic vigilantes reading this column because my English birthday coincided with Gimmel Tammuz, which I spent at the Ohel, farbrenging with Chassidim and Anash. Everyone else will have to e-mail their comments on this highly philosophical query to the address below this column.
In all seriousness though, the lead-up to my 40th birthday was accompanied by more introspection and seriousness than the previous 39. It almost seems as if 40 is a new chapter and the beginning of a new stage in life that wasn’t previously experienced in the last three decades. So if you would have asked me at any point in the past how it felt to be at any age prior to this year, the answer to that question would have been the same as it was the previous year or the year before that. However, my entrance into the 41st year of life coincided with intense back and leg pain and a two-week bout of fever, which I hadn’t experienced probably in the last 25 years. So while it was revealed at the end of the two weeks that I had caught mono, my thought process up until that point was that there was something about turning 40 that nobody ever told me.
I have learned that there is nothing better than humor to dispel inner turmoil and darkness. It’s often the light that is capable of warding off great darkness. As I dealt with the intense back and leg pains that apparently are symptoms of mono, my mind began thinking of all the places that the age 40 or a correspondent of it are mentioned in Chazal. I immediately came upon the Mishnah in Avos that states “Ben arbai’m l’binah,” which essentially is the title of this piece—“the age of understanding.” Rashi comments that the word “binah” is “meivin davar mitoch davar.” Then there is a Gemara that states: “Lo ka’im inish ada’ateh d’Rabbeih ad arba’in shnin.” “A person cannot fully grasp the profundity within his teachers’ lessons until 40 years.” This teaching in the Gemara is of course an interpretation of the verse in Devarim: “But G‑d has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see and ears to hear unto this day.” This verse was spoken at the end of the 40 years after the giving of the Torah, when the Jewish people were given the ability to understand the teaching of their rebbe, Moshe Rabbeinu.
There is a dispute between Rashi and Tosafos whether or not this refers to the age of 40, or 40 years after one begins to study Torah. The general consensus is that it is referring to the age of 40, which, like the Mishnah in Avos states, is the age when one achieves intellectual maturity. However, although the next source isn’t referring to the age 40 per se, there was something about it that I just related to at the time so I borrowed it. By the luchos, Chazal mention that the mem and the samech in the luchos stood miraculously. Of all the three sources dealing with the age of 40 or the letter mem, which is numerically equivalent to the number 40, I related to the miraculous nature of the standing mem as a result of the leg and back pain that I had to endure.
I felt funny allowing such an important birthday to pass without reflecting upon it. Everything is Divinely ordained, and while I had spent a lot of time reflecting on the significance of the number 40, I believe there is a connection with the month of Av and the avodah of Tishah B’Av, so these reflections had to wait until now to see the light of day. It’s important to distinguish between chochmah and binah, although the Zohar says that chochmah and binah are “tren rei’in d’lo misparshin l’olmin,” two eternally inseparable friends. For the purposes of this discussion we will have to isolate the two characteristics to appreciate each of their unique roles in the flowing of Divine communication from the transcendental realm into the limited one. Chochmah represents a seminal flash of wisdom initiated from on high. Binah is the manner in which we develop that wisdom.
There is a verse in Iyov which states: “V’ha’chochmah mei’ayin timatzei”—meaning, the origin of chochmah is in the realm of ayin. Conversely, the verse in Mishlei describing the sefiros of binah and gevurah, which occupy the same side of the sefirotic diagram within different realms, states: “Ani binah li gevurah—I am binah and gevurah is mine.” The words “Ani” and “ayin” possess the same letters in a variant order. The message is that ultimately what G-d had envisioned in creating a world in the lower realms is that through deference to His will, Divinity will suffuse the limited realm and ultimately perfect His plan for creation, as the 17th-century German kabbalist, Rabbi Naftali Hertz Bacharach, wrote in Emek HaMelech: “K’sheim sheyesh lo koach b’bli gevul, kach yesh lo koach b’gevul.”
There is another verse in Iyov that occurred to me in the context of this idea: “Yamusu v’lo b’chochmah.” This says that chochmah, being in the realm of ayin, in the Divine domain, is beyond the effects of atrophy and death. What seemed somewhat ironic was the fact that the first two Batei Mikdash did not endure but specifically the third one will endure. The third Beis HaMikdash in correspondence with the sefiros would align with tiferes, which is the midah of emes of Yaakov, which is an inheritance without boundaries and is, by its very nature, everlasting. However, there is a verse in Navi that states: “Gadol yihiyeh k’vod ha’bayis ha’zeh ha’acharon min ha’rishon.” Some of the commentators explain that the first two Batei Mikdash are alluded to in the word “rishon,” and the third and final Beis HaMikdash in the word “acharon.” Following this correspondence, the third and last Beis HaMikdash would align with the sefirah of binah.
Another term for the sefirah of binah is ima, or the mother. In Kabbalah and Chassidus, abba is chochmah and ima is binah. By the parah adumah there is a Midrash that states: “Let the mother come and clean up the excrement of her son.” In chochmah, which is rooted in the realm of ayin, there is no excrement; however, once we enter the realm of binah, wherein we mix in our own flavor and characteristics, we are subjecting our service to temporality. The only eitzah is to involve our own faculties and humanity but at the same time be completely nullified before G-d. Along these lines, it seemed quite fascinating that specifically the third Beis HaMikdash is the subject of a debate regarding whether or not it will descend fully constructed or Mashiach will involve himself in its construction. Perhaps we can conclude that it will be a composite of both opinions, aligning it with the sefirah of binah, the age of 40, and a partnership between mankind and the Divine leading to an everlasting edifice within this limited world, lower than ten cubits, speedily, in our days.
Many of the ideas discussed herein are rooted in spiritually sensitive realms. In the instance that I have erred in my understanding of some of the subject matter, G-d should forgive me.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.