Ki Tavo: Wisdom and maturity at forty

Ki Tavo: Wisdom and maturity at forty

An important lesson for life appears at the end of this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tavo. Just before the maftir portion at the end of the seventh aliyah, Moshe, in response to the ingratitude of the Israelites, prepares to remind them of the more unusual aspects of their shared forty-year desert trek.

As a preface to those recollections he tells them that the Almighty has not granted them “an understanding heart and eyes to see and ears to hear until this day,” forty years into their journey. (See Deuteronomy 29:3-4). The Talmud quotes the sage Rabba as commenting on this verse that one cannot fully comprehend or appreciate what his rabbi or teacher has previously taught him until forty years have passed. (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Avodah Zarah, 5b).

This statement speaks quite truthfully about the human condition. For oftentimes we look for quick results, fast achievement, and accelerated gain and progress in our work as well as in our leisure-time pursuits. Living in a dog-eat-dog world we are prone to seek quick results. As a result of the advances in technology we aspire to be the best in our given professional fields as soon as possible. The urge to attain mastery over our studies, careers, and environments presses and pushes continually on our personalities, on our character. Even in the area of religious fulfillment there is a desire to get it all at once – to be the perfect Jew as quickly as possible – which can lead to harmful habits and personally oppressive behaviors.

And it is here that we ought to heed the time-honored lesson of the great sage Hillel. Asked by the would-be proselyte to teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot, he answered with succinct lesson, “that which is hateful to you do not do to your friend or fellow human” and added crucially: “Go and learn!” The rest is commentary and a life-long pursuit of meaningful study.

Any mastery over a system of knowledge, over our environment, and religious way of life can only be acquired over the course of a long period of time, involving years of persistent work and dedication to the cause. Mere study is not enough; there must be a genuine interest in seeking to understand more deeply the principles of knowledge and the life experiences we have collected along the way. It is then no mere echo of Rabba’s teaching above when our sages in Pirkei Avot (5:25) state that “forty is the age of understanding.”

I look back at my almost three decades in the rabbinate and other areas of Jewish communal service painfully aware of how little I knew when I started out. In my first pulpit, in my mid-twenties, I was amazed and at times overwhelmed by the trust placed in me by those many years my senior who came to me for counsel on deeply painful and complicated personal issues. It was my role to guide and advise but not my prerogative to assume that at that young age I could in any way come close to having enough wisdom with which to acquit myself in those roles.

The words of our Torah reading for this week offer good guidance and proper perspective in our approach to life and the pursuit of not only knowledge but understanding as well. Only after forty years of leadership under Moshe’s steady hand, despite the countless convulsions along the way on the part of the people, could Israel acquire the “heart to know.” Against the backdrop of our worship of youth and young age and the contemporary penchant to ignore those with the “gray hair” while investing inordinate responsibilities in those who have not yet lived and seen enough, Rabba’s comment on this verse represents a signature pedagogy that should be followed in striving toward a more holistic and lasting recipe for communal well-being. The ancients of our faith had it right; somehow along the way we have strayed.