As I have mentioned before, B’ha’alot’kha is a densely-packed parasha, with many lessons and ideas. I commend to you other musings I have written on this parasha to explore some of them.
This year, as I was rereading the early parts of the parasha, I was drawn back to my days as a theatrical professional. The parasha describes how the Israelites would set out from their encampment in a prescribed order so that when they reached their destination, things would fall into place. The whole procedure is well thought out so that people arrive on time to do the things they need to do (like the Kohatites and Levites setting up the Mishkan and Sanctuary.) It reminded me of a typical touring theatrical troupe. The tech crew disassembles the set and then drives all night to the next venue to set up the set so it is ready when the actors and musicians arrive later in the day. In the parasha, the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Mishkan is similarly well-timed and organized.I also imagine that, like today’s “techies” the Levites and Kohatites were the unsung heroes of the effort. When the audience (the people) and the actors (the Kohanim) show up, all is ready for them.
I’ve experienced the touring life in the theatre. I’ve also experienced being the pianist in the band, who, unlike the trumpet or clarinet player (but like the drummer) can’t just show up at the rehearsal or gig ready to go (unless you’re lucky and successful enough to have roadies who do it for you.) There have been, still are, and likely will still be plenty of times I curse myself for being the pianist who has to schlep his instrument, set it up, pack it up, and schlep it to the next gig.
As I was stuck in this reverie, only half paying attention to the parasha as I read through it, I was brought up short by the end of chapter 8 (vv. 24-25.) This is where we learn that Levites begin their service at age 25 and retire at 50. In actuality, when they “retire” they are still permitted to do guard duty and similar ancillary work.
The idea of forced retirement has always troubled me. I know so many people who have been valuable and productive workers for many decades past our arbitrary retirement age. I do understand that life expectancies were shorter in biblical times, so it’s not the retirement age of 50 for the Levites that troubles me as much as the implied assumption that there should be a mandatory time of retirement.
Now there are certainly positive ways to spin this. Just as G”d knew we needed one day off in seven, and gave us Shabbat, G’d may have recognized that it might not be a great idea to work well into our old age without giving ourselves a break. (A cynic might say that G”d perhaps believed that after so many years on the job, one reached a point of dwindling returns for the effort and it was better to retire them.)
Yet each of us in a unique individual. Even allowing for the idea that we are all b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of G”d, we are not made froma cookie cutter or mold. Some of us might be far happier working until we are dead than being forced to retire. Others might be thrilled for the chance to finally stop working and enjoy retirement. There is at least some recognition of the idea that older folks might want to keep working in the fact that “retired” Levites could still perform certain non-ritual duties.
I, for one, would like to retire at some point. Unfortunately, I despair at this ever becoming possible giving the economic climate and my own failures to be properly prepared financially to retire. I certainly don’t want to be forced to retire at some certain age.
I spent last summer at a Jewish summer camp, where I was one of a handful of older adults on staff. I found it refreshing and invigorating to be around so many younger workers. This summer I’ll again be one of few older adults in a staff of 20-somethings, albeit in a different camp setting. I’ll admit it can sometimes be a challenge to keep up with my juniors, but it’s a challenge I like trying to meet – even when I fail at it.
I suspect that, throughout Jewish history, there has been much variance in what older adults choose to do – retire, keep working, etc. Mandatory retirement is a vile concept that, at least in the US and Canada, has been made illegal. In the US, of course, the government has exempted itself from the law as it often does – so the FBI, for example, has a mandatory retirement age. (Sort of amusing in that I just watched the 2010 film “Red” with Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren as retired black-ops types last night.)
The industrial revolution, and increasing personal wealth led to a lowering of the typical retirement age (reaching an average in the mid 50s during the last part of the 20th century.) It’s not like we were working any harder than the generations before. In fact, I suspect most of them worked much harder than we do. But we developed a growing sense of entitlement (and perhaps a touch of hedonism) that found us enamored of the retired life.
The pendulum is starting to swing the other way. Boomers are not seen keen on early retirement. Some of it is related to finances, but there are other reasons as well.
In his now classic piece “Retiring Retirement” published by Stephen F. Barnes in 2007, he wrote:
No longer satisfied with just a nice dinner and commemorative watch, golf or some other kind of lessons, and arts and crafts courses at the local Senior Center, many of us want a lot more out of our “golden years.”
I’d like to believe that our ancestors found ways to allow older Levites to do more than “guard duty” once past the age of 50, so that those who chose could lead continually fulfilling lives. There’s no evidence one way or the other.
In our own time, we surely recognize that mandatory retirement is an idea that has outlived its usefulness (well, to be honest, it can be a useful tool to help deal with employees who have overstayed their welcomes-I can think of synagogues that would love to retire their rabbis at a time of their choosing rather than the rabbi’s choosing. Actually, I think that’s probably happened at some synagogues. Synagogues are not, unfortunately, great bastions of employment ethics – but don’t get me started on that topic today.)
If nothing else, this weeks parasha got me (and hopefully you) thinking about the whole concept of retirement, mandatory retirement, etc. Not a bad topic to muse about this Shabbat.
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
B’ha’alot’kha 5770 – Ecstasy (Redux 5760)
B’ha’alot’kha 5766 – Vay’hi Binsoa – Movin’ Out, Movin’ On
B’ha’alot’cha 5765-Unintended Results?
Beha’alotekha 5762 – Redux 5759 – The Kiss of Moshe