“Ben Bag Bag would say: turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it.
(Pirkei Avot, “The Chapters of our Fathers,” 5:22)
In the early part of the first millennium, Ben Bag Bag, a disciple of Hillel, lived in the land of Israel and provided this wisdom in the spoken language of the time, Aramaic. While Ben Bag Bag is rarely quoted or mentioned in rabbinic literature, we can gain much wisdom from this brief verse referring to Torah and Torah study. By writing in Aramaic as opposed to Hebrew, which was the language of study and prayer, this statement was meant to be understood by and accessible to all.
Ben Bag Bag’s teaching is the perfect way to introduce Midrash HaZaK, a crowd-sourced Torah commentary written by elders for elders.
The word midrash comes from the verb lidrosh, which means “to inquire or to investigate,” and as a noun, also describes the collection of rabbinic literature that “fills in the blanks” that our Sacred Texts might leave, allowing us to read between the lines, so to speak, and to understand Torah in a way that is meaningful to us, in the various places and stages in our lives.
Rabbi Moshe Edelstein shared with me that his colleague, Rabbi Morton K. Siegel, z”l, who served as Director of Education for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, gave the name HaZaK to the organization’s program for senior adults. Hazak itself means “strength,” but Rabbi Siegel used it as an acronym:
Het= Hochma, Wisdom
Kuf=Kadima, Going forward in life
With this in mind, the contributors to this collection of divrei (words of) Torah are rabbis, cantors, educators and laypeople who have reached “a certain age” and have generously agreed to share their wisdom and life experience in the context of our weekly Torah readings. Some grew up attending yeshivas and day schools, some came to Torah study as adults, others (as we’re taught regarding Ben Bag Bag) are Jews by choice. Our authors span the spectrum of Jewish observance and identity. All are thinking and writing through their own unique lenses in order to share their wisdom with their peers and, to preserve this wisdom for the future.
In a play on the popular “30 Under 30” lists, this collection is subtitled, “70 Over 70 (but who’s counting?)” Psalms 90:10 reads, Y’mei sh’notaynu ba-hem shivim shana… “The years given to us (our lifespan) are 70 years,” so 70 seemed like a good age to start with–give or take.
Midrash HaZaK is designed to be your companion to the weekly Torah reading and offer perspectives on a variety of teachings and topics that are relevant as we age. Some deal with death and dying, some with teaching and supporting future generations and some are reflections, but all are designed to address the question, “How do we live until we die, and how can Torah help us do that?” While sources have been checked and double-checked for accuracy, this isn’t designed to be an academic, scholarly work, but to offer insight and wisdom for living our best lives for as long as we’re alive; and for understanding how Torah can help us accomplish that goal.