Sixty, in the Torah, is a measure of completion:
- The sages refer to the number of Jews who left Egypt as "60 myriads" (Talmud, Megilah 29a)
- Large gatherings in general are defined as gatherings of "60 myriads" (Talmud, Berachot 58a).
- The Temple in Jerusalem was 60 cubits long (Kings I 6:2).
- Sixty warriors surround the bed of King Solomon, a full complement of defenders (Song of Songs 3:7).
- Sixty myriads of angels crowned the Jews at Mount Sinai when we accepted the Torah (Talmud, Shabbat 88a).
There is an element of completion, then, in reaching the age of 60, however battered and broken we may feel at times; mazal tov!
I submitted the following column to the Allentown Morning Call's Religion section, in honor of the occasion:
A Lesson from Zechariah, on Israel's 60th Birthday
Some 2400 years ago, as the Jews were slowly building the Second Temple in Jerusalem, they asked the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 7), “Shall we continue to fast for the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple? Or has our period of mourning ended?”
Commentators explain that this question was born of frustration with the slow pace of Jewish redemption from their exile to Babylon. Persian King Cyrus had permitted the Jews to return to Israel and build their Temple anew, but the process had been hampered by Samaritan antagonism as well as Jewish poverty. Those who remembered the glory of the First Temple were unimpressed by the diminished beauty of the second. Only a small percentage of the nation had even returned from exile at this stage of the building process. And so the nation wanted to know: Is this what redemption looks like? Is our suffering truly over, or are we simply in another phase of our exile?
Fast-forward to our own day, and May 2008, as Israel celebrates its sixtieth anniversary of modern statehood. When this new incarnation of a Jewish country was first established, just a few years after the Holocaust, many Jews looked upon its birth as a Divine nod of approval, the first sproutings of Messianic redemption. A holiday, Yom ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) was established, complete with special prayers of thanks and great celebrations.
Over the past sixty years, Israel has succeeded in fulfilling much of that messianic promise. Millions of Jews have been saved from persecution in other countries, such as France, Argentina, Yemen, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. The Torah is studied there in dozens if not hundreds of institutions. Sites barred to Jews by generations of Arab rulers are now open for all to access. A thriving economy, great universities, a society with civil rights for all of its citizens, a democratically elected government and a free press, all of these have been introduced for the first time in many centuries into a land which had been governed by one despot or another for almost two thousand years, since the eviction of the Jews by the Roman empire. In many ways, the past sixty years have seen a great, even messianic, Jewish renaissance in Israel.
But, at the same time, the question of Zechariah’s era resonates with Jews of today’s generation. For thousands of years, Jewish sages have taught that a messianic time would mean peace with the nations around us, a return to Jewish religion by all Jews, and a Temple on the Temple Mount. It is for this that Jews have prayed, “And may our eyes behold Your merciful return to Zion,” three times each day, for millenia. And so Jews today look at constant warfare, internecine squabbles, political corruption and significant poverty among children and the elderly, and ask the question of their ancestors: “Shall we continue to fast for the destruction of the First Temple? Or has our period of mourning ended?”
To this question, Zechariah’s answer is as relevant today as it was in his day. The prophet reminded the populace of the sins which had preceded the First Temple’s destruction, as well as the exhortations of his predecessors: “Judge truthfully, and act with generosity and mercy toward each other. Do not cheat the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and do not plot evil against your brother in your hearts.”
In other words: Dithering about whether deliverance has arrived, or not, is a waste of time. Better to focus on righting wrongs and building a proper society, and ensuring that we earn whatever redemption God has in store.
This is a timeless message, for Jews and for all humanity’s eschatology-oriented religions: Divine Redemption will come, whatever its form, when it is Divinely decreed. Our responsibility is not to attach a label to this salvation, but to work to make it a reality.
You might also see my derashah here.