LIFE: THE SOUL’S JOURNEY
—Rabbi Israel Chait —
STUDENT’S TRANSCRIPTION OF THE AVOS LECTURES (1990)
JUDAH BEN TEMA USED TO SAY: “AT FIVE YEARS OF AGE THE STUDY OF SCRIPTURE; AT TEN THE STUDY OF MISHNAH; AT THIRTEEN TO FULFILL COMMANDMENTS; AT FIFTEEN THE STUDY OF TALMUD; AT EIGHTEEN FOR MARRIAGE; AT TWENTY FOR PURSUIT; AT THIRTY THE PEAK OF STRENGTH; AT FORTY FOR UNDERSTANDING; AT FIFTY TO GIVE COUNSEL; AT SIXTY OLD AGE; AT SEVENTY FULLNESS OF YEARS; AT EIGHTY FOR STAMINA; AT NINETY A BENT BODY; AT ONE HUNDRED, AS GOOD AS DEAD AND GONE COMPLETELY OUT OF THE WORLD.”
A child should not be taught before the age of 5. The modern world sends children to school at the age of 2 or 3; they have a fantasy that by doing so the child will be more advanced. But it turns out that it was just a fantasy. Because by the age of 12 or 13, those children ended up no more advanced than others. Judaism does not hold that a child should be forced to study and concentrate before the age of 5. Concentration is not natural for a child and it does not benefit him; in fact, it harms the child. Rashi says you are not to teach children Torah earlier than 5 because Torah strains the strength of the child.
Jacob went out from Beer Sheba and went to Haran (Gen. 28:10).
The Rav asked why both words were needed, that Jacob “left” and also “went.” In the previous parsha, Isaac blessed Jacob. But Rebecca was concerned about the danger of Esav. She told Jacob to flee to Haran so Esav would not harm him. The Rav said that it is the role of the mother to protect the child; the father’s role is to help him progress. There are two different processes in child education. “Going out” was due to the blessings of Abraham. “Going to” was to flee from Esav. Jacob fulfilled the command of honoring his father and his mother.
The biggest problem in child education is that the parents’ egos are always involved. The parents want to advance the child as this provides greater pride for the parent. Parents invest much fantasy in their child, which is dangerous and harmful for the child and it always backfires. But people do not learn from others’ mistakes.
Before the ages of 5 to 7, a child should remain in his natural environment with his mother and develop naturally. The uniformity system where all children start school at age 5 is a problem and this hurts the child as some children are not yet ready. Each child must be evaluated individually. Chazal’s idea was to follow each individual child’s nature: “Teach a child according to his nature…” (Prov. 22:6). A child that develops at a slower rate is unrelated to intelligence. Development progresses in psychological stages. A child can be very intelligent but grow out of his developmental stages slower than others. To force such a child to learn sooner than he is ready can cause great psychological damage where any gain is forfeited.
Mishnah is to first be taught at the age of 10. This comprises the Oral Torah and is more difficult than scripture (chumash). And gemara study does not start until age 15 as it is analysis, and one’s mind is not capable of this activity until more developed, at approximately age 15 when one is capable of theoretical knowledge. I was taught gemara at age 9 and I didn’t understand it. It made no sense to me. I remember trying to grasp it. I was forced to memorize it as it was a praiseworthy matter to memorize the ammud (page). I thought it was a good idea so I did it, but I gained nothing, and it was actually a harmful process because my mind could not grasp any ideas. I was taking something that was supposed to be ideas and trying to grapple with it, to place it in some compartment in my mind which I really could not find. The whole study was alien to me; it was a waste of time and harmful. But mishnah—the facts of the Oral Torah—a person can handle at age 10. At that age, one is not ready to juggle big theories, but one can commence on material that lends itself to further theoretics, but without going into them. That is a proper approach and how a child should be taught.
Something in learning that frustrates a person is bad for him. To force a person to grasp what he is yet not ready for is harmful. It causes strain and makes the learning something alien. One rabbi says that from ages 5 to 10 it is proper to study chumash, meaning that one should not start before age 5 or continue past age 10. It does not mean to stop totally, but that the emphasis should now shift from chumash to mishnah. In gemara Berachos Rashi says to minimize the study of Tanach because it draws the emotions. Historically this is absolutely correct; all the movements that denied the Oral Torah loved studying Tanach. These movements were enamored by the areas of the prophets which draw the emotions, especially the eschatological areas: areas dealing with the end of time. The prophets discuss this area with great beauty. But in Judaism, there must be a balance. The catastrophe of the people emotionally drawn to this area was their abandonment of reason and rationality. In the second Temple, all the sects—the Essenes and others—went off the track and denied Torah’s wisdom. That is what Rashi said, “Do not teach too much Tanach.” Transitioning to the study of mishnah at age 10 and to gemara at age 15 shows the child Torah’s wisdom and he won’t be drawn by the emotions. This almost parallels the principle to divide one’s daily study into thirds:
Rabbi Tanchum bar Ḥanilai says, “A person should always divide his years into thirds as follows: One third for chumash, one third for mishnah and one third for talmud” (Avodah Zara 19b).
This of course speaks of a mature person. But there is a dispute on this halacha, as the gemara continues:
Does a person know the length of his life, [that he can calculate how much a third will be? The Gemara answers:] When we said that a one should divide his time into thirds, the intention was with regard to his days, i.e., he should devote one third of each day to chumash, mishnah and talmud, respectively.
Maimonides says that of the 9 hours of each day [available to a person outside of his obligations and sleep] he should learn scripture for 3 hours, mishnah for 3 hours and gemara for 3 hours (Hil. Talmud Torah 1:11,12):
If one was a craftsman and engaged himself three hours daily to his work and to Torah nine hours, of those nine hours he should devote three hours to the study of Written Torah, and three hours to Oral Torah and the last three hours to mental reasoning, to deduct one matter from another. (Ibid. 1:12)
But this is only when one first commences learning. As one advances, once should spend all 9 hours in gemara. Gemara refers to theoretical analysis. Maimonides says that one should occasionally return to scripture and mishnah to ensure that he does not forget either: all in accordance with the person’s theoretical capabilities.
Rabbeinu Tam asks why this three-part division is no longer followed. He says it is because we learn Talmud Bavli which contains all three. “Bavli” means mixed together. Rabbeinu Tam did not give the same answer as Maimonides. Rabbeinu Tam held that the halacha of dividing one’s learning into these three areas is a halacha in derech halimud, the manner of study, and applies even when one becomes advanced. He held that the prescription for Torah study is to always be involved in these three subjects. According to Maimonides, the study of scripture and mishnah are [only] preparations for theoretics; the latter being the essence. He held that scripture and mishnah are only to provide one with the facts. Attaining perfection is through theoretical knowledge. But Rabbeinu Tam held that there is an intrinsic gain in learning all three subjects daily; one can never abandon studying scripture and mishnah. When learning Talmud Bavli and encountering a verse from scripture, one should study the chapter and know that verse.
Today, yeshivas focus on gemara and not scripture and mishnah. This is because once a talmid leaves yeshiva at the age 20, or 25 if he is lucky, he won’t be able to become a lamdan [talmudic scholar] later on [and therefore he must focus solely on gemara while attending yeshiva]. People work far greater than three hours today [leaving less time to study gemara] so the yeshiva must focus on gemara. Furthermore, the need for fluency in scripture and mishnah today is unlike earlier years when Tanach was written on a klaf [scrolls] and not everyone had one, requiring Tanach to be memorized. The gemara says that they couldn’t even afford a klaf for a shul. But today, all the [scriptural and mishnaic] sources are available in print. Therefore, the yeshivas are justified in abandoning the focus on scripture and mishnah since the goal is to create a lamdan. If during a talmid’s time in yeshiva he divides his study into these three parts, we will not produce talmidei chochamim.
Another reason to focus on gemara is because it’s focus is ideas, which students like. But to focus on language and how to make a laining is not attractive to teenagers, and once they leave yeshiva they will not continue learning because they did not come to enjoy it.
AT THIRTEEN TO FULFILL COMMANDMENTS
A change occurs at this age. It is the time of life when a person has the ability to exercise his rational control over his instinctual nature. I often tell people not to tell a child “Control yourself.” It is a mistake. Parents tell children, “Don’t do X because it is not good.” They try to explain to the child why X not good. However, the child does not yet have that compartment of his mind. The child does not have the will to exercise control. This harms a child because his inability to exert self-control results in guilt. Teaching control by beating the child is also not right. As this does not teach control, rather, it teaches the child to fear the parent.
It is not necessary to teach a child to exert rational control; this comes naturally. The same is true regarding socializing. Placing children in school at age 2 to teach them how to socialize is wrong, as socializing too is a natural phenomenon [it is not a learned behavior, but it is as natural to socialize as it is to laugh at humor; the latter too does not need to be taught].
Children must not perform harmful actions. The only way to prevent them is by force: simply take the child away [from whatever harmful activity he is engaging in]. There’s nothing wrong with a child experiencing frustration. In fact, it is healthy because not frustrating a child and instead, catering to his every need, the child will not be prepared for life. This is because one does not fulfill every wish in his life. Parents don’t like frustrating a child because the child cries and the parent thinks that if they cried, it would be painful [the situation causing the parent’s cry must be bad]. But parents fail to realize that the child’s cry is unlike the cry of an adult. The child cries as he wishes for everything. While the parent’s wishes are tempered by their knowledge of reality [a person cannot get everything he desires], which cancels out many wishes, so parents curb their desires. [Therefore, when a parent does cry, it must be due to a real trouble. The parent then projects that severity onto a child’s cry, feeling bad for the child, when in fact, like the adult has properly learned, every wish cannot be realized. The child learning this lesson through frustration is good for him. Thus, the parent should not view the child’s cry as something bad.]
There are people who can’t tolerate protracted satisfaction, where the benefits or results of their labors are not immediate, but very far off. Some people can’t go to medical school because it takes 5 to 10 years. They are accustomed to immediate gratification. Thus, the denial of immediate gratification benefits a child. Frustration within reason is good. Everyone including children must enjoy life. The mistake is to identify with a child and view him as a “little man,” which he is not. You must use reason when raising a child and not identification.
The reason adults can’t exercise control later in life is not because they weren’t taught. It is precisely because they were taught to do something which they we’re not ready to do. Thereby, they developed hatred against it and no longer wish to associate with that matter. Therefore, they refuse to exercise control. The natural process [of developing an affinity towards something] that would have taken place, has been thwarted. That is why a mistake in this area is a dangerous mistake.
When frustrating a child, it is okay to explain to him why you are not giving him what he wants. You do not have to make the child think that you are being mean. But you cannot expect the force of that reason to control a child, when he lacks the compartments of the mind that is capable of doing such a thing [grasping the reason and exerting control].
People who are least prepared for life are those to whom others constantly catered. They suffer all their lives because they can’t exercise control. Adoniyahu ben Chagis—King Solomon’s brother—was arrogant and politically foolish. This was for a reason, as the verse says:
His father had never scolded him saying, “Why did you do that?” He was also very exceedingly handsome and was born after Absalom (I Kings 1:6).
King David never made Adoniyahu depressed or accountable. He never reprimanded him; King David overlooked anything he did. Apparently, depression [through reprimanding] is a good thing. After the age of 12, a parent is prohibited from exerting physical control over his child, but psychological control is permitted.
It is important for a child to develop a close relationship with his mother when the child is young. But that does not mean that there is no control over the child. They say regarding the most brilliant people that they remained close within their mothers until age 6 with no schooling until that age. But the mother does not cater to every want of the child. There can exist a close relationship without spoiling the child; the two are not mutually exclusive. If controlling and frustrating the child is not done out of anger, but rationally, the child knows it and the positive relationship is never broken or minimized. The key is that the relationship with the child must be managed with wisdom. It is difficult to control one’s emotions. Aristotle said that raising a family is like being a general: “As a general of an army dispatches his troops logically, one must dispatch his emotions logically.” He was correct.
At age 13 one engages in mitzvos for then one is accountable. At that age, one possesses the psychological ability to exert rationality and control [and can choose to follow the mitzvos].
TWENTY FOR PURSUIT
Pursuit (ridifah) typically refers to running. The commentators say this refers to war:
Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword (Lev. 26:8).
This refers to battle. If that is the case, it is not just a physical phenomenon of running, but it also refers to psychological orientation. Interesting is that one is not culpable for dinei shamayim (heaven-bound judgments) until he is 20 years old, but Bais Din will punish after age 13. This is because the age of 20 marks full maturity: psychologically, physically, physiologically and in all ways. Apparently, although Chazal held maturity to be age 20, in matters of marriage—socially—one is suitable at age 18. In truth, some say that marriage is preferable earlier than 18 because romantic preference exists even earlier. This is predicated on one living within a halachic society where all people follow Torah. But in other societies, one may need to wait longer than age 18 when one is mature enough to better assess the girl. [In societies that do not follow Torah there is the danger that a prospective mate is unfit.] But it is true, if you understand modern psychology, even in a person’s teens, one can accurately choose a proper romantic partner. Romantic preference is important, as the gemara says that one cannot marry until he sees his mate; there must be mutual attraction. Without it, one cannot fulfill “…and you shall love your friend like yourself” (Lev. 19:18).
Chazal set marriage at 18 years of age due to practical reasons, such as having sufficient time to learn Torah and to get a job. This is sensible and also makes sense psychologically. However, today’s society presents a danger because one can be in love with the most harmful individual. In a halachic society rational parents guide the child to find a mate with proper character and livelihood. Then all that remains is romantic preference and the child could select that on his or her own. But in our society there are many more decisions to be made, such as the partner’s values, which, at an early age, one is not ready to judge accurately. Chazal’s selection of age 18 was in a specific situation [not pertaining to today’s society].
AT THIRTY THE PEAK OF STRENGTH
Some explain this physically; peak physical strength is at age 30. At age 20—maturity—a person naturally embarks upon some form of conquest: “pursuit,” or battle. But battle doesn’t necessitate being in the army. It means that at age 20 one forms in his mind the conquest of his life: what he is going to accomplish in his lifetime. A teenager doesn’t want to be bothered with this; he is happy wasting time. This is also true intellectually, as they say that Nobel Prize winners enjoy most of their greatest breakthroughs in thought in their 20s. Newton made his breakthroughs at age 20; Einstein too was in his early 20s [when he made his breakthroughs]. At this age a person is mature and at the height of his powers. Rav Chaim too made his breakthroughs at an early age. Of course, the person keeps going and his Torah grows on. But that’s different than making an initial breakthrough.
Strength refers to after the ground is broken, in one’s 20s, and one proceeds strongly in his 30s along his previously chartered path. After that period in his 30s one won’t ever again have that strength. Carrying the Mishkan (Tabernacle) demonstrated the ideas of life. The priests started carrying it at age 30 to convey this idea.
People like to feel they have time. Therefore, Chazal informed us of these stages so one does not pass up these valuable one-time chances to harness various levels of development and their accompanying benefits.
FORTY FOR UNDERSTANDING
Animals partake of maturity and nothing more. But man has the ability to perfect himself. As Maimonides says, “Just as no one is born a carpenter, no one is born perfected.” Man is subject to a “process” of perfection. There are two components: maturity and the process; the latter acts on the organism and perfects it. Age 20 speaks in the framework of natural maturity, in which all living creatures partake. But in man, maturity is only a potential which must be developed and realized. What acts on the potential is how one lives. Assuming that one lives a life of wisdom during his 30s, after he places all his energy into this wisdom, he reaches his potential. After this point he will not realize any great qualitative breakthroughs. That’s what is meant by “40 for understanding.” Understanding means that at age 20 his potential is completed, and his realization of his potential is at 40. One’s prime is age 40.
Someone might feel sad to reach one’s prime at 40. But it is just the opposite. The reason that scientific breakthroughs are made when a person is young is because science is a specific type of subject: succeeding generations build on previous ones and uncover new areas. Genius is required to identify a new area: a new qualitative opening. Science progresses through such openings: qualitative leaps. And since at age 20 one’s potential is realized, and he is now engaged in pursuit—mapping out one’s life’s plan—now is when one will act optimally to make breakthroughs. The brilliant mind will spot the opening. If he does not spot the opening at age 20, he will not do so at age 40. In Science, after age 20, one is spent: you need another individual to come and spot the next opening. In Torah too, like Rav Chaim who saw a new approach when he was young, that’s like a scientific breakthrough. Everyone is attracted to the glory of the breakthrough. But ego aside, the benefit of the breakthrough is that the person is a chocham. He lives as a chocham and has the penetrating knowledge and he continues to uncover ideas and gains knowledge throughout his life. That is the real benefit. Man’s greatness is to have this knowledge and to live with it and to continue to uncover ideas. This is reached at age 40. Now, wherever he turns, he perceives matters with depth. That is man’s benefit, not the glory of the breakthrough and the accompanying sensationalism.
Therefore, it is a happy matter to be 40 and have understanding. The important thing is benefiting from realizing your potential. The wisdom that benefits man’s life is the wisdom that he develops at age 40 when his potential is realized, and he can apply it and continue to gain knowledge in every area. That is the best time in life, it [his wisdom and intelligent approach to life] improves his life, and is what gives him life in this world and in the afterlife. That’s the most important thing.
Understanding is [occurs] when one has sharpened all his tools. Age 20 is the brilliant light of genius to chart one’s course in life. Age 40 is when one’s abilities have reached their optimal level. But that’s not the ability to scan and spot your mark:
Rabba said, “Conclude from here that a person does not understand the opinion of his teacher until after forty years” (Avoda Zara 5b).
At age 40 there is an added depth, a quantitative increase that provides a certain qualitative depth. Even those holding that Kabbalah is correct (the Gra learned it), we do not know if what we possess today is the same Kabbalah. But all agree that one should not study it until one is 40 years old; it is prohibited. This is because the person will come up with nonsense. Not only is one required to possess intelligence and the ability to learn, but one requires a depth of understanding.
When I say “understanding” means that one is honed to the finest degree, it is not a perfect analogy [to honing a tool]. This is because honing a tool means that one keeps sharpening it until it reaches a certain [quantitative] point. But in knowledge it is a qualitative point. It’s where one reaches a certain depth. Although one is engaged in the same process for 20 years, when he reaches a certain point, there is a qualitative change [unlike sharpening a tool where one only reaches a quantitative point]. When one realizes his potential, it is a different kind of perfection of the mind. And only that kind of person can delve into these areas, otherwise he will come up with absolute nonsense. All these people who are attracted to Kabbalah are attracted due to primitive reasons. And it’s the most dangerous thing and they are guaranteed to come up with nonsense because it is nonsense that attracts them to begin with. Chazal recognized one has no right to delve into this area unless he is 40 years old. This does not mean chronologically but intellectually. Wisdom affects the total personality; it is a fundamental of Judaism. I would differentiate here between the mathematician at age 40, and the talmid chocham at age 40. The mathematician’s knowledge did not affect him as a person. But in Torah, the more one learns and sharpens his faculties and realizes his potential, this affects the total person. At age 40 he is now a different person, and only then can he study Kabbalah. But before age 40 he will come up with nonsense. Ramah says in a teshuva (responsa) that he was criticized for studying philosophy, but he says that more harm came about by studying Kabbalah than by studying philosophy. I believe he said more kefira [heresy] came from Kabbalah than from philosophy.
AT FIFTY TO GIVE COUNSEL
This refers simply to politics. Experiences and a stage in life are necessary to understand political savvy. A certain personality is also needed. This is not just the sharpening of the mind; another quality is required. Experience affects a person as his fantasies have been blunted. In youth, the fantasies are very strong and cause immoderate reactions. In youth, one responds strongly: when offended, one retaliates harshly and immediately. But at age 50, one has lived through experiences and he is settled and in line with reality. He feels that whatever he is, he is. He is not embarking on a new course. Youth and fantasy are over. That is the type of person from whom to seek political advice. Such a person thinks impartially without the sharp emotions tugging. You might say that he is a certain degree removed from life. He is not so excitable. Rechavam rejected the advice of the elders and followed the advice of the young men that he grew up with, who gave him the advice he wanted (I Kings 12:8). Counseling on human affairs requires a stability of mind. Incidentally, this entire progression of our mishnah refers to the perfect situation.
AT SIXTY OLD AGE
It is learned from a verse in Job that a person at age 60 is ready to die:
You will come to the grave in ripe old age as shocks of grain are taken away in their season (Job 5:26).
“In ripe old age” in Hebrew is בכלח which numerically equals 60. But what changes at the age of 60? Death becomes a reality, changing one’s personality. The fantasy of immortality is over; life is no longer endless. One is removed from what I would call the “clamor of life,” a difficult thing to face. Today, the sentiment is “always be youthful,” which means to always be foolish and not realize what’s going to happen. It means to deny reality. That is the American ideal. In Judaism, we have to adjust to how God created man [we must adjust to our mortality].
A different version of this mishnah says “At 60 for wisdom.” However, we said “At 40 for understanding,” so what is this wisdom referred to here? This is a different kind of wisdom that one gains when he withdraws from the nonsense of this world. His mind is steeped in the world of the absolute. For when a normal person recognizes his mortality, he withdraws and directs his energies towards those matters that are eternal. That is what wisdom means. Not in terms of sharpness or abilities, but where his energies are in the world of wisdom. Einstein wrote in a letter that it is hard to write a biography; a man of 50 is not the same man of 30 [one who writes a biography at age 50 is not writing as the man he was at age 30. Thus, the biographical portion that records his 30s is tainted by his current age of 50 and is inaccurate to that degree]. And a man of 60 years is not the same as he was when he was 50. Einstein was a normal human being and he underwent these changes as Chazal state. He said that when he grew older, he tremendously enjoyed being alone because he would withdraw from the nonsense of the clamor of life and direct his concentration onto the world of ideas and wisdom. As a wise man progresses, he changes. One cannot be 60 at the age of 30. You cannot jump ahead, and you must live life at the stage in which you are at. It is important to know the stages.
AT SEVENTY, FULLNESS OF YEARS
And Abraham died at a good ripe age, old and contented (Gen. 25:8)
Maimonides said Abraham wasn’t looking for additional life anymore. One comes to a time in his life when, in terms of accomplishments, one looks backward instead of forward.שיבה means that whatever one has done, he has done. It refers to the acceptance of reality regarding accomplishments. But he progresses, “In old age they still produce fruit” (Psalms 92:15). The gemara says that as a talmid chocham ages, he becomes more secure, calmer. Reality fits in line with what he has learned all his life and it makes him a more total person. In that sense it is the best part of his life. But שיבה means there is no more push forward.
AT EIGHTY FOR STAMINA
Basically, at 70 years old, one is done. This now deals with something else. But people live beyond their lifespan. This does not mean physical stamina, but it also includes psychological stamina. This is because at 80 years of age, the difficulties one encounters, he never encountered previously. And that is why this stage in life requires strength, a certain strength of character to be able to cope with the physical difficulties. One needs courage at this part of life and some people can’t do it; they give up. When one gives up psychologically, it affects his body.
AT NINETY A BENT BODY
If you see centenarians, they have a fixed glaze, like they’re removed from this world.
Maimonides did not make a single comment on this entire mishnah. Obviously, his edition did not have this mishnah.
This is a beautiful mishnah and you can appreciate it only if you have one idea: the human soul. A person with this idea realizes that in man there is an essence, a metaphysical essence. The soul is brought into this world and it travels through a journey: 5, 15, 20…100 years, and then it exits this world. The mishnah is not a sad mishnah. It is the story the journey of the soul in this physical existence. So, if one has fantasies of unbelievable conquest and endless success, this mishnah will depress him greatly. But if one recognizes what the human soul is and what his eternity is in terms of his soul, and he knows that this world is a journey with a beginning and different stages, and then the soul removes itself and eventually continues in its eternal state, it is not a sad matter that one recognizes this. It is a difficult thing, but that’s what the mishnah is about. And finally, at age 100 there is no purpose in a person’s journey any longer. [END]