Our fascination with President Shimon Peres’s advanced age – almost 90 years –
is amplified by his fountain of unending energy, vigor and, most of all, fresh
ideas, initiatives, charming diligence and the balanced integration of ageearned
experience, wisdom and future-oriented outlook.
That reminds me of a
lesson that I learned from a Jewish colleague in the US. Dr. S. Mouchley Small,
a University of Buffalo professor emeritus of psychiatry, noted that one
practical advantage of being Jewish in America is that you have two dates of
birth, the general Gregorian one and the Jewish date. In most years, the two do
Therefore, he was celebrating “the birth period”– which is
the time between the two dates – the longer, the better. His wife did not like
it, jokingly complaining about his being a “spoiled kid.”
The “kid” took
his lively philosophy further. In his late ’70s, he started making plans for his
bar mitzva. In Mouchley’s perspective of Jewish life, man’s designated longevity
is 70 years. At that age, you are reborn for your second round and at the age of
83 years, you celebrate your second bar mitzva.
This vibrant bon vivant,
mentally sharp, optimistic giant designated his wife to be in charge of all
“bread and butter” arrangements of the anticipated huge celebration.
was not very excited about it, to say the least. Alas, he passed away
shortly after he shared his plans with me. May his memory be blessed and
inspire the living.
I, for one, believe, think and act according to that
concept. Since I am still in my 60s, I have not been reborn yet. Once I am 70
years old, I may or may not look forward to what Jewish life expectancy is – 120
This was Moses’s age when he climbed Mount Nebo to accept his
punishment, which was not to enter the Promised Land after shepherding his
people for 40 years in the desert. Moses was 80 years old when he led the
Israelites out of slavery to physical and spiritual freedom.
innovative, vigorous, forceful, determined and wisely consistent. In his
80-120-year period of life, he created a free nation in the face of extreme
adversities, leading his people in triumphant internal and external
Three issues are of interest in this context. Two are in the
past and one is a future-forward process.
First, in the Book of Genesis
(6:3), the determination of life expectancy as being 120 years is generalized
for all mankind. It is actually a compromise: Following the union of “the sons
of God” with “the daughters of Adam,” future offspring will not live
Second, the writer of the Bible knew that women live longer than
men. Sarah, the first matriarch, lived 127 years and set the pace for her
daughters to follow.
Third, and looking toward the future, we are
constantly moving closer to the 120-127 milestone.
doubled during the past century. We are learning of increasing number of
centenarians, though real progress will be when reaching the age of 120 years
will not be newsworthy.
Gerontologists still warn us that “aging “is a
sort of disease. At a certain age, everybody is destined to suffer from
Alzheimer’s, dementia, cardio- vascular disorders, cancers and other unfortunate
This prediction, of course, increases the gerontologists’
“market” and, therefore, their importance.
In reality, they are important
because they help to expand the number of good, happy and productive years
Where will gerontologists’ patients be referred when all of
us reach 120 years? In the old Jewish tradition, reaching the advanced age of 70
years was desirable because that represented achieving respect for experience
and wisdom. We read in the Passover Haggada that when the great sages of the
Mishna were sitting for the Seder and discussing the Exodus as well as events of
their time, one of them – Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria – said that he had to be
considered as if he were 70 years old in order to be listened to and be accepted
as a spiritual leader.
Wisdom, the ability to apply it and teach it, is
the key, and not the chronological age. There is no “too young” or “too old” for
a task. The individual’s attitude and ability are what really
Societal attitudes toward the “elderly” are also apparent in
academia, which is supposedly the industry of knowledge and new ideas. It is
unclear to me why anybody believes that suddenly, at the arbitrary age of 67
(and sometimes even 65), an intellectual’s mind is considered inferior
Maybe he or she wishes to retire and enjoy the “golden age,”
but in many cases people do not wish to slow down. They are completely capable
of contributing their experience- earned wisdom.
Bureaucracies in Israel
tend to imitate American ways. The approach to people over 65 is one such
example, but it should be the contrary.
Israel is a refuge for any Jew by
virtue of being Jewish. Just imagine how many 65-year-old American and Western
European Jews are annually expelled from academic institutions, hospitals,
commercial corporations and cultural entities. Many of them possess dynamic
minds; they do not wish to be put to pasture.
Financially, many are
financially comfortable. They wish not to be a burden – just the
Many people – the exact numbers are subject to the intensity
and efficiency of marketing – may be challenged enough to participate in
“focused brain trusts,” pursuing projects within their expertise and interests.
The participants will be teachers and mentors, educating toward the realization
of fresh ideas.
The qualifying test for acceptance into a brain trust
would be the demonstration of dynamic attitudes by responding to the pioneering
challenge of starting something new and following it up. The compensation would
depend on work and output.
Experienced olim should encourage their
offspring to follow in their footsteps. They will then help change prevalent
Currently, when a wise person qualified to join the retirees’
lobby initiates a long-term project for the next 20 to 30 years, the initial
response may be, “Are you crazy? You will not see the fruits of your efforts!”
Indeed, the contract with the Almighty is one-sided. He knows when your day
comes, but you do not. Like any other being, I may die today in this fleeting
moment, or stay on Earth for the next 30 years. And, God willing, maybe even
With our consistently improving biomedical knowledge, many of
these years can be productive and happy.
So, my resolution for the time
when I am finally reborn is: I will not live with a “sand clock” telling me what
I can and cannot do.
I will strive to be creative, innovative and show
initiative with the knowledge that tomorrow is certain.
I will realize
that the cumulative past does not taint optimism. It makes it realistic and
helps to make it operational.The writer is chairman of the WPA Section
on Interdisciplinary Collaboration, chairman of PEMRN and professor and director
of BioBehavioral Research in SUNY-AB. He is currently a Fulbright scholar for
MENA regional studies. The opinions expressed here are his own, and do not
reflect and are not endorsed by the Fulbright Program or any other US agency.