For the last six months of my fifty-ninth year I was often asked what I planned to do for my sixtieth birthday. Although I came up with several grandiose, totally impractical schemes, I questioned what the significance of turning sixty really was. After all, retirement age is generally not sixty. Senior citizen discounts start anywhere from age fifty to sixty-five depending on the service provider. How was my life going to be any different from the day before my sixtieth birthday to the day after?
Efrat, my friend, neighbor, and soon-to-be mother-in-law of my youngest daughter, gave me the answer, a spiritual response. Throughout the Torah the punishment of karait is mentioned. We are instructed that this punishment is meted out for any number of transgressions: idolatry, sexual perversion, improper service to G-d, failure to offer the Pesach sacrifice, refraining from doing brit milah, and more. Exactly what the punishment of karait intends is not clear. Some of our sages have taught that it means losing our share in the world-to-come. Others interpret it to mean dying childless. Still others state that it means dying young, before the age of sixty. (This does not mean that everyone who dies childless or young was punished with karait.) Therefore it is a strong custom to have a thanksgiving meal on one’s sixtieth birthday, and every birthday after, in order to thank HaShem for sparing us the punishment of karait.
Growing up an asthmatic child I was very nonathletic but I always liked to walk. As a young adult I discovered the joy of hiking. Israel is full of trails of all levels of ability, even including wheelchair paths. For us, a family vacation or getaway with my husband almost always includes a trek somewhere in the Golan. However, there are also uninhabited hilltops near Shilo just begging to be climbed.
Then the children grew up, the chagim* became very busy with extended family, and the holiday hikes fell by the wayside. I missed them, though. So I finally decided that was what I wanted to do to celebrate my sixtieth birthday, a hike in the area. I invited many of my old hiking partners and a handful of some of the special people in my life to join me. My husband arranged a spot with a panoramic view for the thanksgiving meal.
It was not an ambitious one. It was Friday morning and most of us still had to prepare for Shabbat. Still, we enjoyed the fresh air. We marveled at how we could almost see to the Dead Sea. We rejoiced at how many new homes had been built on the surrounding hilltops.
Not only did Efrat teach me that a thanksgiving meal is appropriate for a sixtieth birthday, she also told me that it is important to do a chesbon nefesh, a personal reckoning to take account of all my credits and debits. We are supposed to become better people each and every day of our lives. I know I have grown a lot in the past sixty years but I also know there is much I should improve. I entreat HaShem to help me to progress in my service to Him and the people around me. I thank Him for giving me the ability to hike down the hilltop. I pray that I will continue to be able to do so. With His help I look forward to another thanksgiving meal and hike on my sixty-first birthday.