In Honor of Harav David Lapin’s Birthday

Nov 5th, 2009 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Portion of the Week
You can read the Torah of this great master on this week’s portion at

The following is a special essay by Rav Lapin on his birthday:

It is strange that with the passage of time children “grow up” but adults “get older”? At what point do you stop growing up and start getting older? The truth is, there isn’t a point on a spectrum of age where you suddenly stop growing up and start getting older. Children get older too and adults also grow up. It depends what your perspective is on growth and aging.

If you experience the world through a physical lens, then as a child gets bigger and stronger, he or she is growing up. When we begin to go into physical decline (probably sometime in our twenties) we grow older. But that is like looking at a glass as you fill it with water and only seeing the volume of air in the glass diminishing.

During life two simultaneous processes occur: one spiritual, the other physical. The spiritual process is the soul growing bigger and stronger as you exercise it, develop it, and overcome the resistance to its growth. But at that very same time, the second, physical process happens: your physical strength begins to wane. Physical waning can be slowed by good health practices just as spiritual growth can be accelerated by healthy spiritual practices, but neither can be avoided.

We start life as predominantly physical beings; we end life as purely spiritual beings leaving our physical bodies behind. Everything in between is the movement from the predominantly physical to the purely spiritual. During this movement, our bodies contract their physical power so as to create “space” for the growing soul. In considering growth and aging then, it is important to see both of these processes and their relationship with one another. We should see the soul expanding at the very same time as the body contracts in strength. The total result if a person is working on himself spiritually, is that he grows holistically into a much more dynamic, powerful, wise and insightful person with every passing year. This is the growth that birthdays celebrate.

Milestones in Decades

Many milestones mark the journey through this life-process. The most significant are the ones tracked by Yehuda ben Teima in Pirkei Avot (5:24).[1] In my own life I have found them to be astonishingly accurate. Towards the end of every decade I begin to feel seismic disruption somewhere deep in my subconscious. Sometimes these tremors break through to the surface, sometimes they manifest in major shifting of the ground I used to feel firm on. Then, at the end of the decade comes the decade-birthday marking the beginning of a new era in the journey to ultimate spirituality. With this birthday I feel a profoundly deep and peaceful awareness ushering in the next decade, a time of new and promising breakthroughs. These breakthroughs have always occurred exactly in the areas featured by Yehuda ben Teimah and the sum of the transitions he outlines, produce an elaborately exquisite chain of spiritual! evolution.

The twenties are Lirdof, Ben Teimah says, a time of ambition and the pursuit of goals. The thirties are when people are at their physical peak. At forty the decreasing graph of physical strength and the increasing trajectory of spiritual growth intersect. The forties are a time of Binah, the understanding of complexity and intellectual innovation. During the fifties, when wisdom is growing, ego is in decline and the individual has accumulated some life experience, he becomes a competent consultant to others. The characteristic of this period is Eitzah, the giving of sound advice.

Binah and Eitzah, diminishing ego and growing experience, lay the ground for a dimension of wisdom different from the Binah of the forties. There are two classes of intelligence. One is the class of intelligence that is not dependent on chronological age and that is accessible to young people. The second class of intelligence is the wisdom that, like good wine, is only achieved through a lengthy process of maturation. This wisdom is called Ziknah, and manifests in a person’s sixties.

Ziknah is zeh kanah chochmah (a person who has acquired his wisdom through his investment in life and learning), someone whose chochmah is his own, he has made a kinyan in it, and it carries the stamp of his own personality. It is not a commoditized wisdom that he absorbed from books and the teachings of others. Ziknah is a wisdom that has matured over years and carries the stamp of a person’s own uniqueness. The wisdom you will learn from a man or woman of 60-plus, is not the same as the wisdom you can learn from any other human-being. Their wisdom carries with it the inimitable hallmark of that individual’s own life-experience and history.

Bringing Learning into Life and Life into Learning

During the first part of my Torah career my focus was to bring my Torah learning into life and to share it with the Benei Torah I was privileged to teach and with business leaders, both Jewish and non-Jewish to whom I have consulted. Thrilled and thankful for the impact this has had, I shall bs”d continue to do that.

But as I transition from the decade of consulting to the decade of wisdom, I experience a growing desire to go beyond that. I seek not only to bring my learning to life, but also to bring my life experience to my Torah learning. Increasingly I find myself bringing my atypical life experience of working with great people and leaders around the world, into the way I understand and teach Torah. Having grappled with global issues and complex leadership challenges and having used Torah to resolve them, I have gained a perspective on chazzal and the wondrous depth of their wisdom that I couldn’t have had before. As my rearview mirror of life reveals a longer stretch of road than it used to, I can see patterns in life and history that were not evident over short distances in time. These patterns make sense of Torah ideas that were previously puzzling to me. All of this provides me with insights that are unique just as my life (and each of ours) has been un! ique. They enable me to offer a brand of learning and teaching that is not a commodity, but a rarity for which I feel eternally grateful to Hashem.

We are all climbing up the mountain of life. Some of us are further up the mountain paths than others. You may notice that those of us who are further up the slopes get a little more tired than those who are still in the foothills. That is normal. Yet if you want to know the direction to go, or if you need insights into the conditions ahead, ask the people who are further up the path. Their Ziknah-wisdom surpasses the Binah-intelligence of the more vigorous people lower down. They may be walking a little slower, but they have a better chance of reaching the peak than those who have just begun. We’re all climbing the mountain together. It is not about growing up: it’s about going up.

[1] “Study chumash at 5, Mishna at 10. Observe the mitzvoth from 13 and marry at 18. The 20’s are for the pursuit of goals, the 30’s for strength.etc”