Judah ben Teima used to say:
At 5 years Old A Person Should Study The Scriptures

jonheadshot-full4C-200pxPirke Avot 5:24 – Judah ben Teima used to say: At five years old a person should study the Scriptures, at ten years for the Mishnah, at thirteen for the commandments, at fifteen for the Talmud, at eighteen for the bridechamber, at twenty for one’s life pursuit, at thirty for authority, at forty for discernment, at fifty for counsel, at sixty to be an elder, at seventy for gray hairs, at eighty for special strength (Psalm 90:10), at ninety for decrepitude, and at a hundred a man is as one who has already died and has ceased from the affairs of this world.

[whohit]Judah ben Teima used to say: At five years old a person should study the Scriptures[/whohit]

Dec. 27, 2013, Va-era Exodus 6:2–9:35, 24 Tevet 5774

In the verse from Pirke Avot above, we read the earliest or at least one of the earliest references to bar mitzvah. It is stated as part of a series of milestones for a Jewish child. In this case, the child is a boy. Today, most Jews would read these milestones as egalitarian. Though they don’t exactly parallel the American Jewish education system, it does closely resemble what happens today.

At five years old or in kindergarten, we celebrate consecration when the Mishnah (Pirke Avot is a tractate of the Mishnah) says a Jewish child’s education should begin. At ten years, Hebrew School begins or maybe just a bit earlier. At 13, a child has his or her bar/bat mitzvah. We hold Confirmation at about 15 years old. I am not sure that things continue along the Mishnah’s track for 18 and 21, but for much of the rest of the Mishnah, at least up to 80, there is some truth. Though I turn 60 in the spring and don’t see myself as an elder and the gray hairs of 70 have been here for quite some time.

In this week’s parashah, we see the special strength of an 80 year old as Moses confronts Pharaoh telling him to “Let my people go!” We don’t know much about Moses’ previous 80 years. In Exodus 2, he is born, raised in Pharaoh’s home and flees to the desert. By chapter 3, Moses has the vision of a burning bush and the command to return to Egypt. He is about 80 when this moment takes place. Maybe this Mishnah is about Moses telling us that during those intervening years while tending flocks he learned about authority, gained discernment and counsel, and advanced toward that moment of becoming a gray haired elder. At 80, he would need all that he had learned and gained to find that special strength to go up against Pharaoh who is a formidable opponent to the God of the Jews.

Though we tend to think that this confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh is a long narrative in the Torah, it really only lasts about six chapters or so. Moses brings a plague on the Egyptians. Pharaoh tells the Jewish people to leave. They pack and Pharaoh changes his mind. Yes, this is a bit simplistic to the intensity of the story, but it is the gist of it. Yet, in these chapters, Moses grows into the leader that God believes he can be and Moses takes charge of his brothers and sisters and leads them to freedom.

(One must note, as many of you already know, that in the Haggadah that we read during Pesach Moses isn’t mentioned. It is a battle between our God and Pharaoh that takes place and it is God who leads the people to freedom. That issue is for another conversation.)

In the Torah, Moses is not perfect. Moses makes his share of bad decisions, but Moses becomes the people’s leader and it is to Moses that the people turn to lead them and to vent their anger when things go wrong. Throughout the rest of Torah, Moses teaches us lessons of leadership and humility. Moses shows us that at 90 there doesn’t need to be decrepitude nor does one cease to exist at 100 or even 110. Moses shows us that the relationship with God that he acknowledged at 80 in front of a bush that would not be consumed grows into a very personal, deep and profound relationship over the next 40 years. He talks to God and argues with God. He leads the people forward as far as he can with God’s help. And when it is time to die, it is God who accompanies him to this unknown place bringing his journey to an end.
This is what our Mishnah is about – life is a journey and during that journey we learn and grow and change and adapt. Each layer of life is built upon a previous one: from authority to discernment to counsel to elder and so on. It begins with the education of our youth that gives us the foundation for becoming the adults we are today. Our life should never be arrested at one stage, but continue as a lifetime’s journey with each new stage adding a new layer to the old.
When you light your Shabbat candles this evening, light one to help lead us on our life’s journey so that we can see where our next footstep should be. Light the other to shine on the path we have already walked so that we embrace and cherish what came before.

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