By Malkie Hirsch
If I could categorize the age of 40 in the family dynamic, I’d place it right in the middle. I’ve never been a middle child but I have 5 children and often observe how Yosef (my third) often feels left out of his older brothers’ activities and yet doesn’t feel like he belongs with Gavi and Rosie either. He’s sandwiched in between the big boys and the “littles.”
Forty is that middle child in the midst of what one hopes to be a longer life but also the age at where one might take stock and reflect on the time that’s passed, what they’ve accomplished and lived through thus far, and make plans for the future. It’s a concept chassidus refers to as “the emptiness of the middle.”
Mem, which is the gematria of 40, is the midway letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
What does this mean?
You take your life experiences, your childhood and young adulthood, parenthood and take pause, wipe your slate somewhat clean, and make room for what hopes to be the newer and more spiritually enhanced, emotionally adept version of yourself.
Forty is the age when on most forms, you’re no longer able to proudly check off that coveted 30–39 year old box option.
The question is if anything truly profound happens from the last day of your 39th year to the start of your 40th. And in most cases, I’d venture to think not.
Your eyes immediately scan to that box because you had spent ample time in your 30s and for some reason, 40 is that chosen number to officially start midlife. You begrudgingly check off the right box and wonder what entering the new decade will mean to you.
Or maybe what it has meant historically, through time to many others. The number 40 has presented itself in many places throughout Jewish history—the mabul lasting for 40 days and nights, acting as a mikveh, which is comprised of 40 se’ah of water, to purify the world of the sins the Jewish people committed and needed to atone for.
Bnei Yisrael walked through the desert for 40 years, Moses spent three sets of 40 days on Har Sinai to receive the Torah and tablets for the Jewish nation.
The numerical significance is renewal and self-nullification—the chance to gather what’s been done, understand it, and empty out to make room for what’s to come.
On a more personal note, 40 was and is the age where our lives as a family were changed forever with Moshe’s untimely death and at the same time, an age where I learnt the most about myself as a woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a friend. The most complete version of me, thus far.
Recently, upon sitting down with a friend who went through the loss of her husband in a similar sudden fashion, we spoke about how sad we were that our husbands didn’t get to meet the people we’ve become and how proud they’d be.
How we’re way happier with the people we’ve morphed into since their deaths and the feelings associated with that. Knowing that if this wouldn’t have happened, we might’ve missed rising to a challenge and thriving instead of just simply surviving.
Funnily enough, this happened for us both at the age of 40. And I know they see it all and are here even though we don’t get to see them, but how we wished they could have basked in the pride I’m sure they would’ve had if they were here in the flesh.
As the first year of my 40s approaches its end, I take a few moments to think about how it was spent—mostly raising my kids, while establishing a stronger sense of self, at times surveying the physical changes that older age brings—the occasional gray hairs that appear on my head, the well-earned lines in my face that are a bit more pronounced now.
I’m hesitant to color my hair or fill in the lines that show me that I haven’t just been gifted with life; I’ve been living it to the fullest.
The Mishnah in Avos says: “Ben arba’im l’binah”—you achieve binah at 40. Binah is a rich word. It means wisdom, but a particular form. Like 40, it’s sandwiched in between (it even has the Hebrew root bein, meaning between.)
Chochmah is information. Binah is understanding. Da’at is application. (My family’s heritage, Chabad, is an acronym of those three forms of wisdom: Chochmah, binah, and da’at.)
Chazal say the binah is: mevin davar mitoch davar, the capacity to extract one idea from another.
It’s connected to the root boneh, to build. To take blocks of information and experience and put them together. This skill is especially noted in women, who are credited with “binah yeseirah,” extra binah.
Deeper understanding, intuition, perception, observation. It happens “bein,” between—in midlife. It says G-d fashioned woman in Bereishis. He “built” her, with added binah, and with the physical ability to procreate banim—children, and armed with that unique binah to raise them well.
Last week, on Moshe’s yahrzeit, I went to the cemetery to visit him, catch him up on the latest developments in our lives, and tell him about the kids and how well they were doing.
Before I ended our one-sided conversation, I gripped the side of his matzeyvah and whispered, “I know you must have been so worried about us, but I’m here to tell you that we’re doing really well.”
As I said the words, I started to cry, but not so much from sadness, more from these new feelings of confidence, conviction, and hopefulness—this new version of me that has made its debut at 40 and is going to stick around and grow for what I hope is many years to come.
Malkie’s husband, Moshe, a’h, passed away at the age of just 40. She has been sharing her thoughts and emotions with readers on her Instagram page @Kissthekoshercook. We are now privileged to share her writings and reflections with our readership. May Moshe’s memory be a blessing for Malkie and her beautiful family.