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40 Isn’t Just a Milestone Birthday. It’s an Important Jewish Number.

40 Elol Kveller

I’m a congregational rabbi, so the month of August is always a bit anxiety-provoking. Whether the holidays are “early” or “late,” they are coming, and my mental checklist goes into overdrive planning of sermons, services, and more.

And this is to say nothing of the spiritual work; in the Jewish calendar, the month of Elul is meant to be one of anxiety for all of us. The shofar, sounded each day of the month leading up to the Jewish New Year, is a spiritual wakeup call — a reminder to look back on the year that was, with its successes and its failures, its hopes and its challenges. When was I the mother, the wife, the teacher, the daughter, the friend I wanted to be? When did I miss the mark? Who do I want to be in the year ahead, and how do I want to get there?

These are questions I ask myself every year in the month preceding the High Holy Days. But this year, I turned 40 the day before the month of Elul began, on Aug. 11. And, if I am being honest, that milestone was harder than I expected it to be.

I turned 30 less than a year after my wedding, in the third year of my rabbinate. I looked forward to that birthday, hoping it would give me more grounding in my new roles as wife and rabbi. Now it is 10 years — plus a bunch of fertility treatments and additional pounds — later. I have two children who astound me every day and a loving spouse, plus a new job in a new city. I know that I am “hashtag blessed.” I know what the alternative is to turning 40. But, still.

Social psychologists Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield coined a term for people in the last year of a life decade: “nine-enders.” Their research shows that people are more likely to do something at ages 29, 39, 49, and 59 they didn’t do — and didn’t even consider — at ages 28, 38, 48, and 58, and didn’t do again when they turned 30, 40, 50, or 60. The most common example is running a marathon; nine-enders are overrepresented among first-time marathoners by a whopping 48 percent.

My nine-ending year was a year of deep uprootedness. I didn’t run a marathon, but I did move with my family from the community and city where we had spent more than a decade — and the city of my birth — to a new community and a city in which I haven’t lived since graduate school. New schools, new jobs, new friendships… new everything.

In this time of transition, I find myself turning (as we’re supposed to) to the words of the High Holy Day prayers, and the reminder that while I can’t control much in this world, the Jewish tenets of tefillah, teshuvah, and tzedakah — usually translated as prayer, repentance, and charity — are in my hands.

Here is what these mean to me as I enter this new decade.

Tefillah: Intense and real self-reflection, in conversation with the Divine and Jewish tradition. Writer and educator Parker Palmer teaches that each of us is born with some innate gift, and part of becoming fully alive is to discover and develop our birthright competence. Can I figure that out? Can I bring my fullest self into the world?

Teshuvah: The work of deep, meaningful relationships. Can I repair ones that have been strained? Can I strengthen the ones that hold me up? Can I build new ones — always hoping that in bringing my fullest self, I will encounter others in their fullest selves?

Tzedakah: My role in making this world a better place. How do I raise my children to be the people I want them to be, deeply caring and concerned about the world? What do I model, where do I give of my time and my resources?

As it happens, 40 is not an insignificant number in Jewish tradition. The great flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights. Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai before bringing Torah to the people of Israel. And, perhaps most significantly, our people spent 40 years wandering in the desert before we reached the Promised Land. There are 40 days between the beginning of Elul and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In our tradition, 40 seems to be a span of time that invites discernment, if not quite fulfillment and understanding. In fact, there is a teaching that suggests 40 is the year we attain — or at least seek out — understanding. Hey, no pressure.

But for all of my existential angst, I’m thankful for the confluence of the big 4-0 and the beginning of Elul. According to the Jewish calendar, we are supposed to be asking ourselves the big questions of life right now. We are supposed to examine our deeds and misdeeds, to prepare to repair ruptured relationships, and consider who we are and who we want to be.

And as I turn 40, I’m asking myself similar big questions: Is this the life I imagined I’d be leading? Is this the life I want to be leading? Have I fulfilled my ambitions, lived up to my potential? Will I ever feel sure, will I ever feel settled?

And…. how do I train to run a marathon by the time I turn 49?

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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