Adapted from Sichos
Yud-Alef
Nissan, 5722,
Yud-Alef Nissan, 5732,
and Chof Av, 5740

When and How to Give Thanks

Commenting on the verse:1 “Let every soul praise G‑d,” the Midrash notes the connection between the words neshamah, meaning “soul,” and neshimah, meaning “breath,” and interprets that similarity as a hint that we should praise G‑d with every breath. But just as G‑d conceals the vitality which maintains our universe within the natural order, our thanksgiving should be embedded in the fabric of our lives. In this vein, our Sages state2 that it is undesirable to recite Hallel (psalms of praise) every day. For our gratitude should be a constant, ongoing part of our lives, expressed without flamboyance.

There are times, however, when overt expressions of gratitude are appropriate. As the Previous Rebbe taught, a birthday is one such occasion. It is a time when mazalo govar, a person’s mazal3 shines with power. Birthday celebrations are particularly in order when embarking on a new decade. As Pirkei Avos teaches,4 each decade represents a new phase in a person’s development.

Highlighting One’s Purpose

Showing appreciation for the gift of life should involve more than speeches and songs. As the Previous Rebbe taught,5 on a birthday a person should spend time alone, meditating about the purpose of his life and correcting those matters that need amending. Since his mazal shines powerfully on that day, a birthday celebrant can use this influence to focus on his individual mission, and work to align all the elements of his life with it.

In this context, a 60th birthday is a unique milestone. The standard text of Pirkei Avos reads: “At 60, one attains ziknah (sagacity).” Our Sages thus associate6 the term זקן with the phrase זה שקנה חכמה , “one who has acquired wisdom.”

Wisdom is not merely the result of accumulated information. Rather, wisdom is characterized by the ability to focus on the unifying element behind all information.

The AriZal7 follows a different text for that Mishnah : “At 60, one attains seivah (old age).” He does not, however, interpret “old age,” as a negative quality, and offers a non-literal interpretation of the verse:8 “Rise before a person who has reached old age,” stating that “reaching old age” summons up the inner resources that enable a person to rise and accomplish his purpose in life.

Age is Not Determined by One’s Birth Certificate

These concepts encourage us to alter our thinking about growing older. American society has trained us to regard the waning of a person’s physical power as a failing, and to view people of advanced age as less able to produce and achieve.

Some encourage older people to look positively at this change: “You’ve earned the right to take it easy. You deserve a rest.” Others put it more bluntly: “You’re no longer useful; it’s time to make room for others.”

This tendency to push people into retirement affects the mentality of the people themselves. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as many resign themselves to living less productive and meaningful lives.

The Torah offers a different outlook, stating:9 “An abundance of years will endow knowledge.” Our Sages explain10 that as Torah scholars grow older, their understanding becomes more settled. Nor does this apply solely to scholars; our Sages instruct11 us to stand in respect for even an unlearned person who is advanced in years, for the very experiences which he has undergone grant him insight and perception unavailable to a younger person.

Since man is fundamentally a thinking being, as a person’s understanding increases with age, there is no reason that his activity should not also increase. A seasoned person has the ability to serve as a resource for others, aiding them with guidance and counsel. This allows him to exert a far more comprehensive influence than was possible in his youth, when his energies were spent primarily in pursuit of his own development.

Pushing an aged person aside thus causes great waste, not only for the person himself, but for those who seek to displace him. They deprive themselves of the wisdom for which the sheer energy of younger men cannot compensate.

This is particularly true in the present age, when advances in technology and communication have reduced the importance of physical exertion. Now more than ever, it is knowledge and understanding that power economic and social growth. In such an era, individuals who possess these qualities in abundance should be treasured, not cast aside!

Shifting Focus

In is natural to strive for more than one has, as our Sages state:12 “Whoever possesses 100 seeks 200.” An advance in age should not dampen this drive. On the contrary, the knowledge and insight that come only with experience should spur us to pursue larger and more far-reaching goals. We are told:13 “Man was born to toil.” As a person’s years are lengthened, his toil — and its fruits — should also grow.

On the other hand, as a person goes forward in life, there is place for a redefinition of priorities, for at any age, it is living — not merely making a living — which is of fundamental importance. As a person grows older, financial burdens become less. Children marry and begin living independently. This provides an opportunity to refocus one’s ambition. In earlier years, there might have been times when a person “ate, slept, and drank his business.” Now there is a chance for a person to lift his eyes to other horizons and augment his spiritual growth. The fact that a person’s physical vigor is waning and his wisdom is increasing14 should give him insight into the direction he chooses to point his energies.

The heightened spiritual awareness which results will infuse vitality into every dimension of experience, enabling him to live a truly full life. This in turn will give him the opportunity to anticipate — and thus precipitate — the ultimate of all human experience, the Era of the Redemption, when:15 “Older men and older women will once again sit in the streets of Jerusalem.” May this take place in the immediate future.