Israeli writer Amos Oz was taken with the famous introductory sentence to Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in life’s journey I strayed from the straight road…” Oz loved the first four words because, he says, that is when so many stories begin: in the middle years, in what we call “middle-age,” a time for building families and careers, independence at its finest.
It is also, however, a time of life we dread. Partly, we fear the loss of youth, and partly our middle-age years are when we may also be called upon to care for others, while no one cares for us. Our parents age and need us more and more, and the dependency period of our children seems to stretch out longer and longer.
The “sandwich generation” brings to mind the middle, or “sandwich,” book of Torah, Leviticus.
The entirety of Leviticus is about life’s middle-aged afternoons, a theme that arises when we combine its first two readings, Vayikra and Tzav. Vayikra began with the words, “God called Moses and said….” From the apparent redundancy of the word “called,” the rabbis deduced that God first addressed Moses by name, the way we speak to someone we love. Middle-age, they concluded, is saturated with God’s special love.
The rabbis extended that lesson to this week’s reading, by insisting that God’s commanding comes with parallel love. This week’s instruction, “Tzav” (“command” the priests), they say, represents “special urging,” because what they are commanded to do is to sacrifice, and sacrificing is hard.
There you have it, middle age: when we at last achieve personal, financial, and psychological independence, but are asked to sacrifice that independence for aging parents and not-yet-fully-grown children and to do so at God’s special urging.
We are like Moses, who enters life’s afternoon as Leviticus begins: no more heady stuff like a burning bush, confrontations with Pharaoh, and Sinai. The middle-aged Moses hears only God’s commanding voice to sacrifice, and the rabbinic point is that God’s love continues even then.
In our middle-aged afternoons, we too get the daily commands of Tzav, “special urging” to go about the unflashy business of sacrificing for the growing numbers of people who depend on us.
Yet that too is a gift. We may even be awestruck by life’s chain of giving and receiving. In the childhood of life, we receive; in the nighttime of old age, we receive again; and in life’s afternoon, we get the gift of giving.
We appreciate the gift especially if it is taken from us, as it is with many whose middle-age years are prematurely marred with trauma — giving is hard when early dusk settles over an afternoon that ought to have lasted longer. For others, it lasts a long time. Who knows?
Life’s afternoon may not be all it’s cracked up to be, but being asked to sacrifice and being able to do it is indeed a gift of love. Enjoy it as long as you have it.