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Afternoon In The Desert
Tue, 03/11/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 6:43 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 6:1-8:36;
Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: I Samuel 15:1-34
Havdalah: 7:42 p.m.

Israeli writer Amos Oz was taken with the famous introductory sentence  to Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in life’s journey I strayed from the straight road…” Oz loved the first four words, “Midway in life’s journey,” because, he says, that is when so many stories actually begin: in the middle years of life, what we call “middle-age,” a time for building families and careers, independence at its finest.

It is also, however, a time of life we dread. Partly, we fear the loss of dying youth, with old age increasingly coming into view. Partly too, our middle-age years are not all tales of vigor, self-indulgence, and success. They can be equally filled with the need to care for others, while no one cares for us. Our parents begin to age and need us more and more. Simultaneously, the dependency period of our children seems to stretch out longer and longer, so that we constantly care for them. Welcome to the sandwich generation.

The sandwich generation brings to mind the middle, or “sandwich,” book of the Torah, Leviticus (Vayikra). Map the Torah cycle onto the life cycle, and Leviticus becomes our middle age, the afternoon of our lives, no longer the morning of our youth, but not yet the evening of old age.

The entirety of Leviticus is about life’s middle-aged afternoons, a theme that arises when we combine its first two readings, Vayikra  and Tzav. Vayikra began last week with the words, “God called Moses and said...” From the apparent redundancy of “called/said,” the Rabbis deduced that God first addressed Moses by name, the way we speak personally to someone we love before getting to the business at hand. Middle age, they concluded, is saturated with God’s very special love.

The Rabbis extended that lesson to this week’s reading too, by insisting that God’s act of commanding comes with parallel love. This week’s instruction, Tzav (“command” the priests), they say, represents “special urging,” because what they are commanded to do is to sacrifice, and sacrificing is hard.

There you have it, middle age in a nutshell: the time of life when, at last, we achieve personal, financial, and psychological independence; but the time, also, when we are asked to sacrifice, and to do so at God’s special urging, and a sign of God’s great love.

We are like Moses, who is, himself, entering life’s afternoon as Leviticus begins: no more heady stuff like a burning bush, confrontations with Pharaoh, and Sinai. The “middle-aged” Moses (he was 80 at the time of the Exodus, 120 when he died) hears only God’s commanding voice to sacrifice; and the Rabbinic point is that God’s love continues even then.

Life’s middle-aged afternoons are like that: no more annual birthday parties, trips to the zoo, parents who cuddle us, and surprise presents from grandparents. Instead, we get the daily commands of Tzav, “special urging,” to go about the unflashy business of sacrificing for the growing numbers of people who depend on us.

Yet, that too is a gift. We may even be awestruck by life’s chain of giving and receiving. In the childhood of life, we receive; in the nighttime of old age, we receive again; and in life’s afternoon, we get the gift of giving.

We appreciate the gift, especially if it is taken from us, as it is with many whose middle-age years are prematurely marred with the lasting trauma of being hit by a car or felled by chronic illness. Such unfortunates may still have some afternoon left in them – it is not as if they have absolutely nothing left to give. But giving is hard when early dusk settles over an afternoon that ought to have lasted longer than it did. For others, of course, it lasts a long time. Who knows?

Life’s afternoon may not be all it’s cracked up to be, but being asked to sacrifice and being able to do it is indeed a gift of love. Enjoy it as long as you have it. 

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College in New York. He is the author of ‘100 Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation’  (Bluebridge Press) and ‘We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism’ (Jewish Lights Publishing).

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