Atlanta to Jerusalem: 80 Years and Counting

Atlanta to Jerusalem: 80 Years and Counting

A reflection on his 80th birthday, Rabbi David Geffen writes about each day as a blessing.

Rabbi David Geffen

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

Rabbi David Geffen is a former Atlantan and longtime Israeli.
Rabbi David Geffen is a former Atlantan and longtime Israeli.

“Getting old is a fascinating thing; the older you get, the older you want to get.” This advice I found in a book of poetry and it made me realize how my ancestors survived so long. They never gave up; on and on they traveled along life’s highway. Only now, approaching 80, have I begun to understand what life challenges you excitingly face as you add up the years and want to add more.

I entered life on the evening of Nov. 1, 1938, in a small Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. I was a gift that day. Perhaps that is why I continue to give gifts. My mother, Anna, went into labor early on Nov. 1, but by late afternoon the labor stopped. My mother said to the doctor, “I have to have this baby now. Today is my husband Louis’ birthday, and I have not been able to buy him a present. This baby has to be my gift.” So, it was.

Mark Twain treated us all when he wrote: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” That instruction is enlightening, but to reach that stage you have to weave the bright strands of life that you are constantly creating. How does one infuse life with daily nutriments so that the basic material will be in your hands to use?

Mark Twain

One of my English teachers in college, Professor Floyd Watkins from Ball Ground, Ga., inspired me when I thought that I would never understand poetry. “Every line of verse,” he said, “reflects that moment when you recognize an aspect of life.”
He looked me straight in the eye and spoke to me in his deep Southern accent, “David, the poetic words we are studying point out that, in life, the benefactor is the beneficiary.” A man of deep understanding, he shared with me a bit of his homespun philosophy. “As we feed, we are fed. As we give, we receive. As we lift, we are raised. As we go out of ourselves into something bigger than ourselves, we become bigger in the process, and we provide the most nourishing substance our craving hearts demand.”

During the days, months, years of my existence, I tried to reach each peak to which I believed that I could ascend. Was I asking too much of myself? I don’t think so. Always I heard a little voice, “David, should you rest content with only a personal human harvest?” Sometimes I have pushed myself, probably much too much, but I could not permit what I thought were my abilities to be lost. Yes, I have been labeled a workaholic legitimately, and almost every time I succeeded in completing a task, it prompted me to try to do more.

I learned that overdoing is wrong because you fail to fulfill other, more important obligations. At 80, I still need to learn that lesson over and over again. A task fulfilled patiently does enrich our life, while one pushed and pushed and pushed to fruition demonstrates how we do not weigh personally and properly what we are given to accomplish.

Took me a long time, but I did learn that each day of our life is a great blessing.
What is a blessing? That word, which we use so frequently, has numerous meanings.

The writer, Thomas Mann, was very interested in the Biblical narratives. His book, “Joseph and His Brothers,” is quoted time and again by Dr. Nehama Leibowitz in her Biblical studies because of the insight to the text he provides. I learned much from a modern Midrash he wrote on the second tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai.

G-d orders Moses to carve two tablets from the surrounding rocks and then cut into them the words of the Ten Commandments. When Moses is finished, he realizes that the letters cannot be read. He slashes his finger and covers the unseen words with his blood. Mann concludes that we can only live a blessed life if our blood illuminates our outer being.

Moses gets a glimpse of the Promised Land in a detail of a 1903 paining by James Tissot.

Life is the flow of family that enhances us, raises us up and comforts us. I have found in the 56 years Rita and I have been married that we have always risen to the needs of each other with love, care and by providing direction. Husband and wife relations are the building blocks of family, community and nation.

Our children, their spouses and our grandchildren are the generations to come, when we are no longer here. They will carry our love and embrace our lives in their being. That is the future. Now, in these days, they watch over us and make sure our lives are as filled as possible. What a blessing!

For me, the number 80 has almost become real, a few days to come as I write this. My mind surveys all that has been mine, all that has been enriching, but also all the mistakes I have made, but fortunately corrected as best I could. David, your current pinnacle has been reached; understand it in these poetic words.

“Blooming under a cold moon, we are like fireworks. Rising, shining and finally scattering and fading. So, until that moment comes when we vanish like fireworks, let us sparkle brightly.”

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