It is forbidden to be old
— Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

A friend recently greeted her fortieth birthday in a state of shock:

"I can't believe it," she said, "this must be a practical joke!"

Something about turning this particular age makes it different from all previous birthdays, and it's often strongly resisted. The cover of a drugstore birthday card reads, "I'm glad you're 39" and the inside flap adds "....again for the fifth time." Popular self-help books abound with titles such as: Life After Youth: Female, Forty — What Next?, We Over Forty: America's Human Scrap Pile, and Midolescence: The Dangerous Years. On the other hand, there's Prime Time: A Guide to the Pleasures and Opportunities of the New Middle Age, The Male Mid-Life Crisis: Fresh Starts After 40, and the famous Life Begins at Forty.

These titles reflect the ambivalence and unease that afflict so many people who turn forty. There is a sense that some phase is being completed, but this often gives rise to anxiety — the well-known mid-life crisis. Feelings of emptiness often accompany the completion of any major project or phase of life.1 One wonders what to do next, how to fill the gap. For fortysomethings, youth and its seemingly limitless possibilities are felt to be ending, ambitions remain unfulfilled, physical energy is often diminished, and death becomes more of a reality. There are omnipresent reminders: If you are over forty, consult your doctor, a common warning goes. Social functions for singles and job descriptions are frequently classified into two groups: for those Under Forty and those Over Forty.

The intuition that some great divide has been reached can lead to restlessness and putting into question all aspects of one's life. Forty then often becomes a time of turmoil, a kind of second adolescence when jobs and spouses are changed in a restless search for a new life. And this sense of disequilibrium is not just a contemporary American phenomenon. The greatest Italian poet, Dante, beautifully expressed it in the famous opening lines of his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, written in the year 1302:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself within a dark forest
Where the straight way was lost.

What, then, does the Torah as illumined by Chassidic philosophy have to say to those reaching fortysomething, and further — to all who ponder the passing phases of their lives?

Emptiness In The Middle

Chassidic teaching has a special understanding of that sense of loss and emptiness. In order for a person to reach any new stage, to ascend to a higher level of insight and understanding, Chassidism explains, there has first to be a kind of self-nullification (bitul), an emptying out of oneself to make room for the new. In other words, between the prior level and the succeeding level, there has to be what Chassidism terms a nothingness in the middle (ayin be'emtzah). This psychological principle reflects a spiritual principle, and that — in turn — reflects a cosmological principle.

Jewish mysticism explains that the Creation of the world first occurred not through an act of G‑d's expansion and self-assertion, but the reverse — through a tzimtzum or contraction. G‑d, so to speak, first had to withdraw or contract His infinite light and presence, and create an empty space in order to make room for a world of finite beings.

That pattern is then followed in every aspect of existence: there has to be an emptiness in the middle in order to move from one state of being to the next. A seed has to first dissolve in the soil before it can grow towards the light and bloom. In a human being, emptiness becomes spiritual openness when one lets go, when one nullifies one's ego, when one's own ego does not try to fill and control all the space around one, but makes space for the other. The emptiness is the necessary prelude to an entirely new and higher mode of existence.

We find this principle at work in the flood story of Genesis. The flood is described as lasting forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:12). Now clearly, if G‑d had wanted only to punish humankind for its corruption, G‑d could have done so in a moment. What purpose did a forty-day flood serve? In the Chasidic interpretation, the flood was a kind of mikveh, a ritual bath given to the world in order to purify and renew it. One immerses oneself completely in the waters of a mikveh, down to every last hair, nullifying one's previous state. And by virtue of this complete immersion and self-nullification, one afterwards emerges from the waters purified, on a different level, a new being.

Interestingly enough, Jewish law also specifies that the amount of gathered rainwater needed to make a mikveh kosher is forty seah. And the number forty is extremely significant all throughout the Torah: it is associated with critical junctures in the lives of great persons and of the Jewish nation as a whole. Moses, for instance, spent three periods of forty days each on Mt. Sinai: forty days to receive the Torah and the first set of Tablets; forty days to pray and assuage G‑d's anger at the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf (tefillah); and forty days to receive the second set of Tablets and effect G‑d's complete forgiveness and joyful reconciliation with Israel (teshuvah).

Chasidut emphasizes that Moses' life and that of the Jewish people are inter-connected in a profound way: by virtue of the Torah, tefillah (prayer), and teshuvah (return to G‑d) he accomplished in those three periods of forty days, all the Jewish people were also connected to those three things in relation to the number forty. For instance, the forty days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai from the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul until Yom Kippur were established as the forty days of teshuvah and return to G‑d for all Jews throughout all the generations. And the Jews were given the Torah in the course of the forty years they wandered in the desert.

On a deeper level, though, what is the link between the idea of self-nullification, emptiness in the middle, and the number forty?

Forty As the Completion of An Entire World

It's a matter of simple arithmetic but profound spiritual insight. Chassidic philosophy, drawing on the Jewish mystical tradition, explains that all of reality can be described as divided into four worlds. These are constituted by various states of revelation and concealment of G‑d. [The four worlds are named atzilut (emanation), beriah (creation), yetzirah (formation), and asiyah (action.)] These four worlds, in turn, emanate from and are rooted in the four letters of the holiest name of G‑d: Y-H-V-H.

A key tenet of Chassidic thought is that the microcosm emanates from and reflects the macrocosm. So we also find many other sets of fours reflected in nature. For example, Chassidut speaks of four categories of being in the natural world: the inanimate (domem); the vegetative (tzomeach); the animal (chai); and the speaking (medaber). These four types of natural existence levels also exist within each person, so to speak. Or, there are four seasons of the year and four directions of the compass. Indeed, the traditional understanding of the physical world as composed of four elements — fire, air, water, earth — could also be translated into the language of modern science: the matter of our physical world assumes one of four states: solid, liquid, gas, active combustion; or the four elements can be said to correspond to the four basic chemical elements of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen; or to the four elements of subatomic phenomena; or to the four forces known to modern physics (gravity, electromagnetic, strong, weak).

On a spiritual plane, there are numerous fours: the four matriarchs; the four wives of Jacob; the four types of sons mentioned in the Haggadah; the four components of a Torah text (cantillations, vowels, crowns, letters); the four basic levels of Torah interpretation (literal, allusion, allegory, secret), etc.

Jewish mysticism also explains that each of the four higher spiritual worlds possesses the entire spectrum of the so-called ten sefirot. The sefirot are G‑d's creative attributes or characteristics which emanate to, structure, and are reflected in all existence, including the spiritual powers of the human soul. (Materially, each thing in the world also reflects this ten-ness; it can be said to have 9 sides or dimensions: width, length, height; beginning, middle, end; and the tenth aspect is the thing itself taken as a whole).

Now four times ten equals forty; so a complete category of being or world has forty aspects. In other words, forty represents the completion of a whole mode or way of being, and when one passes the number forty, One leaves that mode of being behind and enters an entirely different level . . . another world.2

So every time one finds the number forty in Torah, its inner meaning is the ascent from one level to the next higher one. But the attainment of a higher level can come only after first reaching and fulfilling all aspects (forty) of the previous level, and then making an emptiness in the middle to allow for the emergence of something entirely new.

An intriguing story in the Talmud subtly makes this point: When R. Zeira wanted to learn the Jerusalem version of the Talmud, he first fasted forty times to forget all he had learned of the Babylonian version (Bava Metzia 85a). Why would he have to forget his knowledge of the Babylonian Talmud in order to progress to the Jerusalem Talmud? In the Chasidic interpretation, the reason is that he wanted to absorb the Jerusalem Talmud in a profound and inner way, and he needed to be open to learning the very different style of the Jerusalem Talmud. He had to attain that emptiness in the middle, forgetting his knowledge in order to be able to ascend to the level of the Jerusalem Talmud.

Teaching and Learning Torah at Forty

What, further, are the deeper connections between Torah knowledge and the number forty? For though the Torah was given in the forty days Moses was on Mt. Sinai, it took forty years of wandering and experience in the desert for the Jews to understand it in an inner and profound way. At the end of those forty years, when they were finally about to be allowed entrance to the Promised Land, Moses gave a valedictory address. Reflecting back on all that occurred since leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah, he said to the gathered people:

You have seen all that G‑d did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants, and all his land; the great trials, which your eyes saw, the signs and those great miracles;

but G‑d has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see and ears to hear unto this day. (Deuteronomy 29:1-3).

The Talmud has an intriguing comment on this verse: "One does not come to fully comprehend the knowledge of his teacher before forty years" (Avodah Zarah 5b; also Rashi on Deut 29:6). This statement connects the number of forty years to the attainment of knowledge and a new state of being.

Regarding Torah scholars, the Talmud also says that one does not become fit to instruct [in matters of Jewish law] until forty years (Sotah 22b). Rashi, the classic medieval commentator, interprets the number forty years here to mean forty years from birth. Tosefot, Rashi's disciples and descendants, dispute this interpretation and argue that the phrase forty years means forty years from the time the person begins to actually study Torah, not simply forty years from birth. And their position is supported by the Talmudic statement that one does not come to thoroughly understand the knowledge of his teacher until forty years.

How, then, do we understand and resolve this dispute about the meaning of forty years? Does it mean forty years from birth, or forty years from the time one actually begins ones studies?

There is further support for Rashi's interpretation in the Mishnah's statement that forty is the age of understanding [binah] (Pirke Avot 5:22).3 Now this implies that just as the body follows a natural, programmed course of growth, so too is there a natural and inevitable development of the intellect. At the age of forty, a person's innately given faculty of binah—understanding one thing from another (inference and deduction) becomes fully developed. That is to say, the power of inferential understanding continuously matures until it reaches its full potential at the age of forty.

Other cultures and philosophies sense this development as well. The Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote that "Any man of forty who is endowed with moderate intelligence has seen . . . the entire past and future." On the negative side, George Bernard Shaw wrote, "Every man over forty is a scoundrel." But Jewish tradition is far more positive about this development. Forty is the time when a Torah scholar becomes fit to judge and decide halachic questions. Even though the scholar may have previously studied much Torah, not until this power of binah reaches full maturity at age forty can he best analyze, infer, study precedents, and render legal decisions.

Now the other Talmudic saying, that one does not come to thoroughly understand the knowledge of one's teacher until forty years, refers to something quite different. It signifies understanding the actual words and ideas of ones teacher — not just the power and potential to understand them. Through actually studying the words of one's teacher for forty years, a student finally comes to understand and fathom his or her teacher's knowledge in depth.4

In short, we resolve the dispute about the meaning of forty years by making the following distinction: at forty years from birth, one develops one's own faculty of understanding; after forty years of learning with one's teacher, one comprehends one's teacher's understanding.

It's also true, though, that profound changes and development of one's powers of understanding can take place in less than forty years. In daily life, we often find that when a matter affects a person's very essence, her or his intellectual powers undergo rapid development — as if she or he suddenly achieved the level of the knowledge of one's teacher. People who are intellectually underdeveloped or unlearned can create brilliant arguments in a courtroom when a dispute touches their very being; the pressure brings forth an intellectual power that meets the urgent need.

Creating a New Being

But we might then also ask why the Torah appears to imply that forty is the inevitable age of understanding for everyone. For aren't these things — as well as tefillah and teshuvah — dependent on the varying intellectual and emotional qualities of different people, and their different experiences in life? Some mature more quickly than others; some have special talents, and so on.

Torah, tefillah, and teshuvah, however, all share a core point, an essence which is independent of any individual's particular measure — and that essential core is elicited through forty. That essence is a transformative power, a power through which one enters into an entirely new kind of existence. Torah gives birth to a person, so to speak; prayer takes one entirely out of one's own existence and brings one to face G‑d; teshuvah changes one's status from that of a wicked person to that of a completely righteous person.5

The essential change from one form of existence to a new one is a kind of quantum leap, to be sure. But this new existence itself then needs to be developed and perfected, and requires the extension of forty to become firmly established. In other words, forty also represents taking the seminal idea and establishing its general form or structure. After this period of forty, much more time is required for the development of the myriad specific details.

We see this process concretely at work in the conception, formation, birth, and development of a child. The seed is fertilized in an instant, but there are many further phases in the development of the fetus until all the particular limbs and organs are fully completed. According to the Talmud, it takes forty days for the general form of the embryo to develop, and to be able to discern whether it is male or female (Berachot 60a). In Jewish law, until forty days after conception, the fertilized egg is considered as mere fluid. On the whole, an unborn fetus is considered to be a part of its mother's body and not a separate person until it begins to egress from the womb during parturition. But the unborn fetus still has a special status; if aborted after forty days of conception, the mother is required to undergo the same ritual purification process as if she had given birth to a live child.

And after a child is born, of course, it takes many more years for its innately given faculties to develop. Learning and development do not stop after forty years; neither do Torah, nor tefillah, nor teshuvah cease after the level of forty has been attained. They indeed are limitless, because they contain an ever-renewing, transformative power, and one strives for an ever deeper engagement in them all of one's days.

Growing Older; Becoming Newer

Forty, then, represents both the completion of the previous level, and leaving it behind, nullifying it (R. Zeira "forgetting" the Babylonian Talmud; the flood lasting forty days), and forty also represents the inauguration and structuring of a new existence (the Torah given in forty days, the development of the fetus, and so forth).

The moment of emptiness contains the seeds of the ascent to a higher level. Like the moon, to which the Jewish people are compared, the cycle of waning is followed by a waxing. Jewish history has had many moments of emptiness, darkness and loss, but just as the moon is renewed monthly after its seeming disappearance, the Jewish people are ever renewed, ever reborn.

Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, the great twentieth century Jewish leader and mystic wrote of this constant renewal as key to the life of Jews and Judaism:

The perception that dawns on a person to see the world not as finished, but as in the process of continued becoming, ascending, developing — this changes him from being under the sun to being above the sun, from the place where there is nothing old, where everything takes on new form. The joy of heaven and earth abides in him as on the day they were created. . . . The time that is an uninterrupted Sabbath [the messianic age] on which eternal peace shines, is the day when, by the nature of its creation, there pulsates a continued thrust for newness. It needs no end, no termination. It is the choicest of days, an ornament of beauty, the course of all blessings.6

In the Jewish view, then, getting older is also getting newer. And turning forty is indeed growing up — an ascent to a higher level. The popular saying that life begins at forty is right. Forty signifies not a period of decline, nor should it be cause for regret. It is, instead, both a completion and a new beginning, a retrospective understanding and a prospective passage to a higher level, an emptiness in the middle and the foundation of an entirely new existence.7