This week we read a very interesting portion that begins in Numbers 8. The beginning of portion Beha’alotecha discusses duties of the Levites. The passage looks at the duties of the Levitical priests in regards to the Tent of Meeting. As chapter 8 ends, the Torah says: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: This is the rule for the Levites. From 25 years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of 50 they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more. They shall assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting by standing guard but they shall perform no labor. Thus shall you deal with the Levites in regard to their duties.” (8:23-26). Talk about corporate restructure!
I just returned from a week of teaching at congregations and conferences in Denver and Chicago. These were filled with people, well over 50, who, in many cases, remain active, alert and alive. Yes, I know that the 50 year old in Torah times bears no relation tot he 50 year old now; however, it is interesting to contemplate, in a way, how that concept of retirement has evolved. One of the gifts of the longevity revolution has been the ability to replace the concept of retirement with that of transition. I keep running into people (and I imagine you do as well) who saw the end of full time work as the opportunity to transition into this next stage of life in a new and different way. New challenges and possibilities presented themselves. Given the wild cards of health and time, many of our contemporaries chose, and are choosing, to explore new avenues of life and relationships. It is interesting to consider that the Torah instructs the Levites that their “active” contributions must end at a specific time. Very few of our friends would probably be content to just stand guard and watch as the world passed by. There is a new activism that does seem to be emerging, especially as Boomers age. It is taking the form of Encore careers and civic engagement through focused volunteerism, as well as the continued mixing of work and leisure time, “but on my schedule”, as many have expressed.
There is another way of looking at this idea of “standing guard”. Let me suggest that it can also be interpreted as a way of seeing the use of life experience. In other words, at 50, I now can look back and draw on this wealth of life experience. Let me be available as an elder to advise and guide the young. In this way I am standing guard on the future by being available to help guide the present leaders. One of the major challenges of our society is how to make use of the vast wealth of life experience that is contained in the Boomer generation. It often goes untapped. How many congregations focus too much on their younger population and ignore the richness of experience that is there for the asking. That experience, once shared, can help bring meaning to both the giver and the recipient and can only benefit all. Indeed, as we reach 50 and beyond, the call to service seems to ring louder. And it is a call that increasing numbers of elders are seeking to answer.
Retire and serve no more? Don’t bet on it!
Rabbi Richard F Address