40: It’s Clearly a Magic Number in the Bible



If you have turned 40, you know it's no ordinary birthday; if you're not yet 40, pray to God you get there — with appropriate trepidation.

These thoughts on "40" are prompted by our parshah's curious insistence that Isaac married Rebecca when he was 40. Commentators are taken aback, if for no other reason than that 40 is pretty old for Jews, who believe that their halachic mandate is to have children. Granted, it worked out for Isaac. And Abraham didn't father Isaac until he was more than 100. But, as the Talmud says, "We should not depend on miracles."

Rashi explains: "When Abraham returned from the akedah (the binding of Isaac), he was informed that Rebecca had just been born. Isaac was then 37 years old." If he met and married Rebecca when he was 40, she would have been only 3.

That is, of course, outlandish. So the Sephardic sage Abravanel concedes, "This is pure midrash. Can a 3-year-old water camels at a well?" So 40 is a symbolic number. But symbolic of what?

"Forty" turns up everywhere in the Bible. Esau marries at 40. Noah's flood lasts 40 days and 40 nights; the spies take 40 days to scout the Land of Canaan; 40 days and nights is how long Moses spent atop Mt. Sinai; the book of Judges says, "The land had rested for 40 years" between the time that Othniel conquered the Arameans and "the children of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord." So maybe "40" just means "a long time."

It also means a period of transition, the time it takes to grow up, the time necessary, for instance, for young men like Jacob and Esau to come into their own. Till then, they're young. At 40, they become adults, inheriting the mantle of leadership.

When Moses Appoints Joshua
That is why Joshua is 40 when Moses appoints him his successor; and why the Israelites must wander the desert for 40 years. It takes that long for a generational turnover to occur.

In 1946, the largest-ever generation of Americans was born: the baby-boomers. We date the end of the boomer era with people born in 1964. People born in 1965 are the next generation, sometimes called Gen X. If the biblical number "40" symbolizes maturation, Gen X began coming of age in 2005. We should just now be seeing the first signs of the baby-boomers being replaced by their children.

That would have appeared to have happened in the recent presidential race, where a candidate of the next generation was elected, largely with a massive effort by Gen X supporters, who said they wanted change, and trusted no baby-boomer (or older) to bring it. America has begun the process of turning the reins of the country over to this next generation.

What is true of America generally is true of Jews particularly. Jewish organizations, however, have no national democratic elections to vote people in or out of office, so it will be harder for Jews to make the transition. Current leaders can stonewall, while the next generation decides it's easier to contribute to causes outside the Jewish arena.

We cannot afford to let Gen X opt out. As Moses turned to Joshua when he turned 40, so must the boomers now transfer power to their children, even if they suspect they will disagree with those children's choices. Suspecting the next generation of naivete, stupidity, or worse, is completely natural.

Boomers in power today may recall that it took a revolution for them to be recognized in the turbulent 1960s. But they did pretty well. On their watch, we built UJA and federations into massive agencies, saw Israel through the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, saved Soviet refuseniks, rescued Ethiopian Jews, and launched continuity efforts, when the 1990 census showed Jewish numbers declining.

We cannot predict the challenges of the next 20 to 40 years, but whatever they are, we know for sure that boomers won't be around to handle them. It is time to empower the next 40-year-olds to take their places in the long line of leaders who bring our people to greatness.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor at HUC-JIR in New York.


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