Sunday, February 22, 2009

Happy Birthday! A Jewish view on loss

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

Yes, it’s my birthday. That means I am now – shudder – 37.

Why is 37 a number to cause shuddering?

You can watch the "Holy Grail" video here (the big line is actually at the 37-second mark. Coincidence?), or read the dialogue (which is not really funny without the video):

King Arthur: Old woman!
Dennis: Man.
King Arthur: Man, sorry. What knight lives in that castle over there?
Dennis: I'm 37.
King Arthur: What?
Dennis: I'm 37. I'm not old!
King Arthur: Well I can't just call you man.
Dennis: Well you could say Dennis.
King Arthur: I didn't know you were called Dennis.
Dennis: Well, you didn't bother to find out, did you?

You go, Dennis!

So I celebrated my birthday by teaching a class this morning on a Jewish View of Loss – rather appropriate, as I watch my youth fade in the rear-view mirror.

My thesis for the class was simple:
1) Tanach and Talmud argue that everything we possess, all of our circumstances and the various elements of our lives, are given to us by Gd, whether through explicit Divine directive or through the backdoor of Divinely-ordained mazal.

2) Any transition involves the loss of an old set of circumstances.

3) It is axiomatic - and see Niddah 16b for an example of this - that Gd’s goal in arranging these sets of circumstances is to present me with a set of opportunities. So with every transition, I need to examine my new circumstances and decide how best to function in this new world.

I see three steps for achieving that successful transition:
First) I need to ascertain that there has been a loss. Other than in the case of death, many circumstances of loss - deterioration of a relationship, for example - are less clear in their finality.

Second) I need to endure a period of grief for what I have lost; as Pirkei Avos reminds us, we don't appease angry people in their moment of greatest rage and we don't comfort a mourner before a funeral. There must be an opportunity to mourn for the lost circumstance.

Third) Then, I am capable of accepting this change, and studying and meeting the new challenge.

Yosef and Esther are my main models for this – each suffers multi-level losses, but each comes to a stage of acceptance and then meets the new challenges.

Yosef loses his mother, the love of his brothers, his father, his homeland, his freedom, his place in Potifar's house, and his dignity - and, every step of the way, succeeds in his new situation.

Esther loses her parents, her Jewish environment, her safety and the safety of her nation - and yet, she succeeds repeatedly.

Both Esther and Yosef accept the loss of their old circumstances and figure out how to succeed in their new lives.

And beyond Esther and Yosef, Tanach gives us many models for negatively and positively dealing with transition/loss:

Paroh loses control of his situation, but struggles to reverse it.
Shlomo (in קהלת) recognizes his own loss of control of success and the future, and humbly accepts his lack of control.

King Shaul loses his power, but struggles to preserve it.
King David loses his power, and develops new strategies for survival.

Relationship with Gd
Kayin loses his relationship with Gd, but seeks to force Gd to accept his offering.
Iyyov (Job) loses his relationship with Gd, and (Chapter 42) apologies and starts from scratch.

Economic security
Elimelech loses economic security, but seeks to preserve that wealth by moving to Moav.
Yosef loses economic security, and seeks to help others (the butler and baker) in prison.

For me, the passing of an age milestone, a simple number, brings home the finality of aging. I need to resign myself to the passing of 36, and ask myself how my circumstances have changed, and how to move ahead productively.

BUT: Not yet!
Technically, I have until my "real" birthday - 7 Adar - to accustom myself to this loss. So 36 it is, for a little while longer...


  1. I really hope 37 isn't old, because i'm turning 37 in a couple of weeks! Also, you are only as old as you feel. and double also, with the "loss" of youth, comes (Hashem willing) gain of wisdom and experience - something to teach the younger generation, and might I add, from reading your blog - you are doing a good job of that!

    Happy Birthday Dennis! :)

  2. When someone would complain about getting older, my father would always say "Well, it's better than the alternative!"
    Happy birthday to you, and may you have a successful and productive year.

  3. Rabbi, you're only as old as you think you are, and 37 is still a youngster. If you have at least 31 more years until the government says you can collect social security, you're young. If you are still paying yeshiva tuitions for your children, you're young. If you aren't yet a grandparent, you're young. If your youngest child doesn't have a drivers licence yet, you are young. If you don't personally remember the day Kennedy was assassinated, you are young. If Abba Eban is just a name in a history book, you're young. If you don't remember clearly the Mickey Mouse Club broadcast in black in white on television, you're young.

    My oldest child is only 13 months younger than you are, and If I don't consider myself old, you surely aren't. Especially when my 86 year old mother still calls me to remind me to make sure the blech is up for Shabbos, and to make sure we will get our taxes done in good time, and am I getting enough sleep.

    Happy Birthday and I envy you all the wonderful things that have yet to come down the road that you still have to look forward to.

  4. Thanks for reminding my, ProfK. My big age shock came when I reached into my mailbox and unsuspectingly
    pulled out an enveloped invitation to join AARP! That was 6 years ago, and I still haven't recovered from the shock.

  5. All-

    I guess that's what I was trying to say in the class material... but, as I said, acceptance takes time.

  6. I'll be 40 in a couple of months, 37 still sounds young to me.

  7. Great stuff, here. Happy birthday. It gets better and better, G-d willing.

  8. Happy Birthday!

    Very nice post. Sometimes accepting that there has been an irreversible loss is the hardest part.