Parshat Va'era: The Golden Years
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If the opening of Parshas Va’Era sounds familiar that’s because in many ways it is. Just as we read about last week, once again Hashem wants Moshe to confront Pharaoh and lead the Jewish people to freedom and once again Moshe demurs. Once again Moshe claims that he is not a good speaker and won’t be effective and once again Hashem reassures Moshe that, not only Aharon, but more importantly, God himself will be with him.
And yet for all that is the same, there is one crucial difference: this time it works. “Va’ya’as Moshe ve’Aharon ka’asher tzivah Hashem osam, kein asu,” Moshe, along with his brother, accepts the responsibility and begins his mission (Shemos 7:6). The narrative then continues with Moshe and Aharon actually confronting Pharaoh and, eventually, when Pharaoh is not cooperative, the start of the plagues.
What is most curious, however, is that right before this continuation of the storyline the Torah pauses, as it were, and tells us the ages of Moshe and Aharon. “U-Moshe ben shemonim shanah, ve’Aharon ben shalosh u-shemonim shanah be’dabram el Pharaoh,” Moshe was eighty years old and Aharon was eighty-three when they first spoke to Pharaoh (7:7).
The difficulty is obvious. Why do we need to know how old Moshe and Aharon were and why does the Torah break the flow of the story to tell us their ages at this specific moment?
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin (Oznayim Le’Torah) suggests that a powerful and relevant lesson emerges from this seemingly trivial verse. According to Chazal Moshe authored eleven chapters of Psalms, starting with chapter ninety (“Tefillah Le’Moshe”). In the middle of that very chapter we read that, “ye’mei shenasenu ba’hem shivim shanah,” a normal life span is 70 years, “ve’im be’gevuros, shemonim shanah,” and with strength, 80 years (Tehillim 90:10).
R. Sorotzkin notes, therefore, that it is striking that it was precisely at the age of 80, when Moshe had every reason to assume that his life was “winding down,” that he actually begins his career. The major achievements in Moshe’s life – Yetzias Mitzrayim, Kerias Yam Suf, Matan Torah, leading Benei Yisrael through the desert – all begin after Moshe reaches an age where even “be’gevuros” he could not expect to live much longer.
In other words, Moshe’s example teaches us that Judaism doesn’t believe in a retirement age. On the contrary, says R. Sorotzkin, “kol zeman she’mazkinim,” as we grow older, “mosifim ometz be’limud u-be’tikun middosam,” we must exert even greater effort to increase our learning and improve our character.
This is an especially appropriate message in our generation when, thankfully, life expectancy is growing longer and longer. While the time may come in every person’s life to slow down or even retire from the rat race, when it comes to Avodas Hashem, then no matter the age and now matter how much a person has already accomplished, there is always more that can be done. Moshe’s achievements in the final third of his life remind us that that every stage of life – and not just our younger years – are ripe for spiritual accomplishment and growth.
In addition to this beautiful idea, perhaps there is another, related, lesson which we can also glean from Moshe’s life.
What truly amazing about Moshe is not just how much he achieved after he turned 80, but – with all due respect – how modest his accomplishments had been until then. Prior to speaking to Hashem at the burning bush Moshe was perhaps best known not for anything he did, but for being the baby who was rescued by the princess and then raised in the palace. True, he once defended a fellow Jew and killed an Egyptian guard but certainly, by any objective measure, he had a thin resume.
This is something we should also consider because too often we use past success as the only predictor of future achievement. As a result, people who have had less success when they are younger presume – and others also presume for them – that their future will be much the same.
Moshe’s biography teaches us that this is a critical mistake. The past does not limit the future. Nothing in Moshe’s past could have predicted the great things that he eventually accomplished. Who would have guessed, based on his first 80 years, that Moshe would become adon ha-nevi’im, the greatest prophet in history? Who could have foreseen that the man who was “kevad peh” and had difficulty speaking to others would become the person who spoke to God “peh el peh,” with unrivaled intimacy?
What a critical lesson for us and for our children. No matter how old we are and no matter what we have – or have not – done previously, there is no limit to what can still be achieved. We must learn from the past but we cannot be held hostage by it.
The arc of Moshe’s life, productive and growing until the end, thus serves as a model for us all to aspire towards.