Turning 40: Beyond Boomers

Parashat Toldot

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

If you have already turned 40, you know it is no ordinary birthday; if you are not yet 40, pray God you will get there, but, perhaps, with appropriate trepidation.

These thoughts on “40” are prompted by our sedra’s curious insistence that Isaac married Rebecca when he was 40 years old. Commentators are taken aback, if for no other reason than that 40 is pretty old for Jews who believe that their halakhic mandate is to have children. Granted, it worked out for Isaac, and granted also, Abraham didn’t father Isaac until he was over a hundred, but still, as the Talmud puts it, “We should not depend on miracles.”

Rashi explains the calculation. “When Abraham returned from the akedah (the binding of Isaac), he was informed that Rebecca had just been born.  Isaac was then 37 years old.” If he met and married Rebecca when he was 40, she would have been only three years old at the time.

That is, of course, outlandish. So Abravanel quickly concedes, “This is pure midrash. Can a three-year old water camels at a well?” So 40 is a symbolic number, not a real one. But what is it symbolic of?

“Forty” turns up everywhere in the Bible. Esau too marries at 40 (Gen. 26:34).  Noah’s flood lasts 40 days and 40 nights (Gen. 7:17, 58:6); the spies take 40 days to scout the Land of Canaan (Num. 13:25); 40 days and nights is how long Moses spent atop Mt. Sinai (Exod. 24:18, 34:28); the book of Judges says, “The land had rest for 40 years” between the time that Othniel conquered the Arameans and “the children of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (Judg. 3:11). So maybe “40” just means “a long time.”

More specifically, it means a period of transition, the time it takes to grow up, the time necessary (for instance) for young men like Jacob and Esau to come into their own. Until then, they are the youth of tomorrow. At 40, they become the adults of today, inheriting the mantle of leadership from their parents. That is why Joshua is 40 when Moses (whom he will replace) appoints him (Josh. 14:7); and why the generation of disloyal Israelites must wander the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. It takes 40 years for the generational turnover to occur.

In 1946, the largest ever generation of Americans was born: the baby boomers. We date the end of the boomer era with people born in 1964. People born as of 1965 are the next generation, sometimes called Gen X. If the biblical number “40” symbolizes maturation, Gen X began coming of age in 2005. We should just now be seeing the first signs of the baby boomers being replaced by their children.

And so we are – most evidently in the recent presidential race where a candidate of the next generation was elected, largely with a massive effort by Gen X supporters who said they wanted change, and trusted no baby boomer (or older) to bring it. America has begun the process of turning the reins of the country over to this next generation.

What is true of America generally is true of Jews particularly. Jewish organizations, however, have no national democratic elections to vote people in or out of office, so it will be harder for Jews to make the transition. Current leaders can stonewall and hold on for dear life while the next generation decides it is easier to contribute to causes outside the Jewish arena.

We cannot afford to let Gen X opt out. As Moses turned to Joshua when he turned 40, so must the boomers now transfer power to their children, even if they suspect they will disagree with what those children decide to do once they get it. Suspecting the next generation of naivete, stupidity, or worse is natural. Boomers in power today may recall that it took a revolution for them to be recognized by the establishment in the turbulent 1960s, when they were suspected of radicalism and even sedition. But they did pretty well. On their watch, we built UJA and Federations into massive agencies, saw Israel through the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, saved Soviet Refuseniks, rescued Ethiopian Jews, and launched continuity efforts when the 1990 census showed Jewish numbers receding.

We cannot predict the challenges of the next twenty to forty years, but whatever they are, we know for sure that boomers won’t be around to handle them. It is time to empower the next forty-year old cohort to take its place in the long line of leaders who bring our People to greatness.