Some years after my retirement from my rabbinic pulpit, a former congregant met me and asked, “Are you still alive?” Heavens! It reminded me of an incident when I was a child in Melbourne. My mother was seriously ill, and the next-door boy, with the cruel tactlessness of childhood, shouted over the fence, “Isn’t your mother dead yet?”
My congregant’s question starkly reminds me that I’m no longer so young. The Bible spells it out in Psalm 37:25: “I was young, now I am old.” It echoes in Psalm 71:9 with its heart-rending sentence, “Cast me not away in time of old age.” According to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who is still a vibrant rabbi and educator at the age of 81, the verse is saying, “Don’t cast me into old age... Don’t let me be old before my time!”
Years ago. when I worked for the Association for Jewish Youth in Britain, a know-all teenager told me, “Everyone over 20 is a has-been.” I guess that teenager is still alive – a “has-been” himself, now well into his 60s or beyond. In my case, I’m over 80, still alive and active, and not dead yet.
How do we define old age? In Psalm 90, life expectancy is three-score and 10 – or (if you’re strong) four-score. These days 60, 70 or 80 are nothing special. Contrast the cusp of the Common Era when the average age was 22, and males rarely passed their 40s. To get to 60 was an achievement. Not long ago, that was when you could get into an old-age facility. If one prayed he or she probably said, “Bless me to reach 60 (in good health if possible).” Modern life expectancy has passed 60 – 70 is on track for Moses’ 120.
The Biblical Levites retired at 50 (Num. 8:25-26), when they were no longer so strong and energetic, but they were not lost to the community: the scriptural text says, “They shall serve with their brothers” (verse 26). Maybe that means they supported their fellow Levites. Perhaps they had less onerous duties – they could still lock the Temple gates, sing in the choir, teach the children, and supervise loading the wagons.
These days people are generally still strong and well long past the conventional 60 or 65, so there is no need for a set age for retirement. Older people can continue to work, even at a slower pace. Society should find ways of retaining the expertise and experience of its older members.
Most of us have two or three post-retirement decades, as we are mostly healthy without serious deterioration. We spend as much time in retirement as we did in studying and preparing for a career. We have a professional life of about 40 years, sandwiched between two lengthy stages when society supports us, though the working population complains that youngsters and retirees are a burden on the taxpayers.
Yet unlike ancient Sparta, where the elderly were expected to go off somewhere and vanish, gray power can still contribute to society.
Starting with Moses, whose public career took off at 80, many famous leaders (think of Churchill, Adenauer and Peres) have assumed or held office well into old age. When a public event was planned in Britain to mark Sir Robert Mayer’s 100th birthday, the organizer told him, “Robert, if you die before your birthday I’ll never speak to you again!”
The retiree generation isn’t dead yet. They have their fears, especially of falling. They have financial worries. They go to the doctor quite often. But they’re still capable of using their talents, energies and experience for the benefit of the community, in order to keep busy and to contribute to society – unlike the past, when grandparents were expected to sit home on a cushioned armchair and creak through their anecdotage.
As time unfolds and you become elderly, you lose some of your power, independence and self-confidence. Your energies slip away, but not always, and not entirely. Kohelet’s Chapter 12 paints a picture of developing decrepitude that we old people read with a grin. We lose things, but there’s still a lot left. Casting people on the scrap heap because of chronology is outright foolish. No one falls apart the moment they turn 65 (or some other artificial age) even though an Australian politician, Arthur Calwell, once said, “Today you’re a rooster, tomorrow a feather duster.”
Old people resent being called feather dusters or walking sticks. Their hair has probably gone gray and then white, but they still have a lot to give, even at a reduced pace. Most still have their marbles. They can’t run, jump or hop as they once did, but they still have their skills and can be productive and creative if society lets them – in its own interest as well as their own. Not only in all the many and varied walks of ordinary life, but in public affairs and governance too.
In Sydney, I marked the late Sir Asher Joel’s retirement from political life by suggesting that every parliament should have a second chamber called the House of Eminent Citizens. I wasn’t joking. I nominated Sir Asher as a founding member. I was sufficiently lacking in modesty to hope that one day there would be a place in that House for me too. Or if I took note of Psalm 23 I would say, “Let me dwell in the House of the Lord as long as I live.” There is still time. ■
The author, emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, is past president of the rabbinate of Australia and New Zealand and of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Israel Region. He is over 80 and is an (unpaid) full-time researcher and writer living in Jerusalem.