Today is my thirtieth birthday, which falls out each year during the period in which it is traditional to learn Pirkei Avot, the tractate of the Mishnah that contains many ethical precepts and teachings relating to Jewish learning, among them the following:
Age five is for learning Torah
Age ten is for learning Mishnah
Age thirteen is for observing the commandments
Age fifteen is for learning Talmud
Age eighteen is for marriage
Age twenty is for pursuit [of a livelihood]
Age thirty is for strength….
The Mishnah seems to suggest that a person is expected to attain certain intellectual and personal milestones at particular ages. I find myself often internalizing this way of thinking. “I am almost thirty – I should think about having children!” “I need to finish the Daf Yomi cycle before I turn 35!” “Before another year passes I must learn how to drive!” And on, and on.
There is a value in this way of thinking — it challenges me to set goals for myself, and to strive to attain them. But the older I get, the more convinced I become that there is no such thing as a “right age” for anything.
Last night I had coffee with a dear friend named Mira who lives with her husband and five children in a settlement over the green line. When we first met three years ago in a Jerusalem book group, she was in a crisis because she was turning 40, and I was in a crisis because I was getting divorced. Back then, she told me she envied me because I was so young and had my life ahead of me; I told her that I envied her because she was so stable and settled and sure of her future.
Last night, over hot apple cider in a cafe in a quiet Jerusalem alleyway, it became clear that the tables had turned: I was on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, and she was planning to divorce her husband, something she has wanted to do for a while. Both of us were considerably happier than we were three years ago, though there was a certain wistfulness I sensed when I folded my bare arms over one another to stay warm in the chilly evening air. Having experienced the pain of divorce, it is hard to see someone else celebrate such a moment, especially when the couple in question has five children. And while a birthday is always a time of celebration, it is also hard to accept that time can never be retrieved, and that some decisions are indeed irreversible.
Is thirty really an age of strength, as the rabbis declare? I should like to think so. But I should like to think every age is a time of strength – the strength to face whatever challenges happen to lie in front of us at that particular moment. With the small candle in a ceramic jar flickering on the rickety café table, I close my eyes for a moment and wish for this strength to steady my steps in the years that lie ahead.