I turn 40 next week, and I want to celebrate. I’m not talking about a Madonna-style birthday celebration of pretending I’m still 22, or an Oprah-style event involving a car giveaway (although perhaps if I could actually do either, I might consider it). I’m thinking more along the lines of a celebration of life, of joy, of the freedom that comes with a certain stage of adulthood.
Forty is a big deal. Every major biblical transition was represented by 40: 40 years in the desert, 40 days on the mountain, 40 days of the flood, 40 years of peace when Deborah became judge (after Yael took out Sisera). In short, 40 is birth, transition, or transformation. Forty weeks of gestation. According to the Kabala, 40 steps in the creation of the world – 10 utterances of God, and four steps of creation each time. Forty. According to Aryeh Kaplan, 40 is the mem, the letter of “mayim”, waters, which represents the fluidity of life. Forty, or mayim, is about my own rebirth. I can’t wait.
Forty is freedom. It’s about relinquishing all kinds of anxieties and fears and a nagging need to please. It’s about letting myself dance and sing and run and leap, about allowing myself to be who I am, to speak freely and write freely and not be too afraid that someone won’t like what I have to say. I’ve learned that someone will always disagree or disapprove, so I might as well be true to myself, so at least one person will always be satisfied.
Forty is about owning myself. Like the way the amazing George Michael defines it: “I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me. Yeah, yeah!” It’s about letting go of other people’s voices in my head and listening closely to my own. I believe that quiet inner voice that we all have to be the voice of God that we were all granted as part of our tzelem elokim. It’s so often encumbered by external prattle, the way the poet Mary Oliver writes in her glorious poem, “The Journey”: “Mend my life!”/ each voice cried/ But you didn’t stop/ You knew what you had to do.”
Sometimes I think that the biggest obstacle to my own freedom is that pestering, irritating voice of guilt that tries to intrude on my attention to the internal God by accusing me of unnecessary personal indulgence. As if stopping to breathe and listen is an unnecessary luxury. My vision of 40 is guilt-free joy, a commitment to life in the moment. It’s a Nirvana kind of thing — the Nirvana of being over 40 and letting go of anxieties in order to be truly present in the moment.
Don’t get me wrong — “caring” is and will always be a big piece of my life. But I would like to care a little differently. I care for family, friends, women, the Jewish people, Israel, and human beings and other creatures generally. Caring to me is active, engaging and time-consuming. But now I’m learning to care deeply without letting the pain of the world intrude on my own inner peace. It’s a really difficult balance, but one I’ve started to learn from my friend Rivkah Moriah. A beautiful, joyous woman who has experienced a disproportionate amount of pain, Rivkah teaches me about the coexistence of joy and pain. We acknowledge human suffering, identify and empathize, and simultaneously work on living in joy, Rivkah says. It’s a paradox, but one that I intend to live with. Empathize with the pain, put it in the past, but live in joy in the present.
So, to mark my newfound freedom of 40 and all its accompanying Zen-Torah wisdom, I continue to work to make this kind of freedom possible for other women — specifically, agunot and mesoravot get, women inextricably chained in unwanted marriages who want nothing else than the freedom I described above. If you want to celebrate with me, take a look at what Mavoi Satum is doing to help agunot and mesoravot get. And thanks for celebrating with me.