This article appears in the Jewish Star. Read it there or here:
Torah: a lease on life
by Rabbi Avi Billet
January 15, 2010/ 29 Tevet 5770
How old was Moshe when he fled from Egypt in Chapter 2? Depending which Midrash you follow, he was either a teenager, 20, or 40. No matter which approach we follow, he spent at least 40 years in Midian before G-d sent him to be the deliverer, to take the Israelites out of Egypt. That’s a long time to spend away, working, building a family, and preparing, through natural existence, to become the savior and deliverer of the people of Israel.
In 7:7, we are told the ages of brothers Moshe and Aharon at the time they stood before Paroh. Moshe is 80 and Aharon is 83. What is the significance? If we need to know Moshe is 80 at this time, we could certainly figure out from the end of the Torah when we are told that after forty years in the wilderness, Moshe died at age 120. A simple calculation of 120 minus 40 will bring us to 80 at the time of the Exodus.
Let us assume for a moment that specific ages are not that important, that the fact Moshe and Aharon are specifically 80 and 83, respectively, is insignificant.
Is the Torah trying to teach us something deeper, a significant lesson to be derived from two older men, taking charge of a nation at G-d’s behest, in the latter third of their lives?
Ibn Ezra points out that no other career-prophet began his prophetic career at such an advanced age. Moshe and Aharon also were unique in the kind of prophecy they revealed to the people, as all the other prophets served in a role of rebuking those who had turned from the proper path. Finally, their relationship with G-d was unique in that their prophecy was attained through a cloud, while others fell into a sort of slumber when they received G-d’s revelations.
Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno focuses on their age specifically, pointing out that despite their advanced status, they nonetheless acted as sprite youths, rushing to fulfill God’s will. At the age of 80, they took the term “gevurot” — strengths — (Avot 5:21), to new definitions.
Netziv emphasizes that the Torah mentions their age in relation to when they appeared before Paroh, as opposed to in the context of when G-d appeared to them. It seems quite likely that Aharon had received the word of G-d prior to Moshe’s experience, but that Moshe, at age 80, was receiving it for the first time.
One might argue that 80 in those days was like middle age now. Most people achieve the pinnacles of their careers once they hit their mid-forties and fifties. There are exceptions, those who “make it” earlier, but I would bet statistics would support this notion. One example I know to be true: along with the very few who were elected in their mid-to-upper 40’s, most US Presidents were inaugurated while in their 50’s.
For Moshe and Aharon, was it the ancient middle age? Or were they, in fact, primed and seasoned to take on such a significant role in their waning years? Please do not misunderstand. They were special people, with unique character traits. At the end of his life, at age 120, Moshe is described as “his eyes not having dimmed, nor his natural powers having left him.” (Devarim 34:7)
Nonetheless, I wonder.
Did Paroh view him as an “old man?” Did the Egyptians perceive him as a kooky guy, holding up a placard and prophesying the end of the world? Was he taken seriously by the man on the street?
I like to think Moshe was an older man who felt young, who viewed himself as young. Perhaps his having an infant child (if his second son was truly born around the time of his journey, as Ibn Ezra records in 4:20) would contribute to this feeling.
But even without an infant child, through the new job Moshe had, he had a new lease on life.
Had everything gone as planned, perhaps Moshe was not meant to lead for forty years. The Children of Israel were meant to enter the Promised Land shortly after they left Egypt. Perhaps Moshe, even at his advanced age, was meant to lead the people only so far.His new role kept him going. He could not leave his job unfinished, or at least until it was at the cusp of being completed.
For those who have reached this “golden age,” I suppose the lesson to learn from Moshe is to allow personal involvement in Torah study to become a new lease on life. As long as G-d blesses you with health, and especially if you are no longer working, make the remaining years of your life into ones dedicated to Torah study.
Enroll in a study program, become a rabbi, do what it takes to make the last third of your life the ones in which you become closer to G-d than ever before in your life.
It may even be a recipe for long life, hopefully in this world, and certainly in the next.