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Growing Old

Growing Old

The Jewish view on aging and retirement

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The Torah considers old age a virtue and a blessing. Throughout the Torah, "old" (zakein) is synonymous with "wise"; the Torah commands us to respect all elderly, regardless of their scholarship and piety, because the many trials and experiences that each additional year of life brings yield a wisdom which the most accomplished young prodigy cannot equal. It describes Abraham as one who "grew old and came along in days" (Genesis 24:1)--his accumulated days, each replete with learning and achievement, meant that with each passing day his worth increased. Thus, a ripe old age is regarded as one of the greatest blessings to be bestowed upon man.

This is in marked contrast to the prevalent attitude in the "developed" countries of today's world. In the 20th-century western world, old age is a liability. Youth is seen as the highest credential in every field from business to government, where a younger generation insists on "learning from their own mistakes" rather than building upon the life experience of their elders. At 50, a person is considered "over the hill" and is already receiving hints that his position would be better filled by someone twenty-five years his junior; in many companies and institutions, retirement is mandatory at age 65 or earlier.

Thus society dictates that one's later years be marked by inactivity and decline. The aged are made to feel that they are useless, if not a burden, and had best confine themselves to retirement villages and nursing homes. After decades of achievement, their knowledge and talent are suddenly worthless; after decades of contributing to society, they are suddenly undeserving recipients, grateful for every time the younger generation takes off from work and play to drop by for a half-hour chat and the requisite Fathers' Day necktie.

On the surface, the modern-day attitude seems at least partly justified. Is it not a fact that a person physically weakens as he advances in years? True, the inactivity of retirement has been shown to be a key factor in the deterioration of the elderly; but is it still not an inescapable fact of nature that the body of a 70-year-old is not the body of a 30-year-old?

But this, precisely, is the point: Is a person's worth to be measured by his physical prowess? By the number of man-hours and inter-continental flights that can be extracted from him per week? What is at issue here is more than the disenfranchisement of an entire segment of the population whose only crime is that they were born a decade or two earlier than the rest; our attitude toward the aged reflects our very conception of "value." If a person's physical strength has waned while his sagacity and insight have grown, do we view this as an improvement or a decline? If a person's output has diminished in quantity but has increased in quality, has his net worth risen or fallen?

Indeed, a twenty-year-old can dance the night away while his grandmother tires after a few minutes. But man was not created to dance for hours on end. Man was created to make life on earth purer, brighter and holier than it was before he came on the scene. Seen in this light, the spiritual maturity of the aged more than compensates for their lessened physical strength; indeed, the diminution of one's physical drives can be even utilized as a spiritual asset, as it allows a positive reordering of priorities that is much more difficult in one's youth when the quest for material gains is at its height.

Certainly, the physical health of the body affects one's productivity. Life is a marriage of body and soul, and is at its most productive when nurtured by a sound physique as well as a healthy spirit. But the effects of the aging process upon a person's productivity are largely determined by the manner in which he regards this marriage and partnership. Which is the means and which is the end? If the soul is nothing more than an engine to drive the body's procurement of its needs and aims, then the body's physical weakening with age brings with it a spiritual deterioration as well---a descent into boredom, futility and despair. But when one regards the body as an accessory to the soul, the very opposite is true: The spiritual growth of old age invigorates the body, enabling one to lead a productive existence for as long as the Almighty grants one the gift of life.

Life: A Definition

But there is more to it than that. There is more to the difference between the Torah's perspective on old age and that of the modern world than the classic dichotomy between body and soul, more than the question of material versus spiritual priority.

At the basis of the institution of retirement is the notion that life is composed of productive and non-productive periods. The first 20-30 years of life are seen as a time of little or no achievement, as a person acquires knowledge and training in preparation for the productive period of life. The next 30-40 years are the time in which his or her creative energies are realized; he now returns what has been invested in him by his now passive elders, and invests, in turn, in the still passive younger generation. Finally, as he enters his "twilight years," he puts his period of "real" achievement behind him; he has worked hard "all his life," so he now ought to settle down and enjoy the fruits of his labors. If the creative urge still agitates his aging body, he is advised to find some harmless hobby with which to fill his time. Indeed, time is now something to be "filled" and gotten over with as he whiles away his days on life's sidelines, his knowledge and abilities filed away in the attic of old age. He has now returned full circle to his childhood: once again he is a passive recipient in a world shaped and run by the initiative of others.

Torah, however, recognizes no such distinction between life's phases, for it sees productivity as the very essence of life: the words "a non-productive life-period" are an oxymoron. There are marked differences between childhood, adulthood, etc., but these differ in the manner, not the fact, of a person's productivity. Retirement and the passive enjoyment of the fruits of one's labor also have their time and place--in the World To Come. In the words of the Talmud, "Today is the time to do; tomorrow, to reap the reward." The very fact that G‑d has granted a person a single additional day of bodily life means that he has not yet concluded his mission in life, that there is still something for him to achieve in this world.

Thus, the aphorism "Man is born to toil" (Job 5:7) expresses a most basic fact of human nature. A person experiences true satisfaction only from something he has earned by his own effort and initiative; undeserved gifts and handouts ("the bread of shame" in Kabbalistic terminology) are unfulfilling and dehumanizing. As the Talmud observes, "A person would rather a single measure of his own grain than nine measures of his fellow's."

A working adult, burdened by the demands of life, may nostalgically reminisce on his childhood "paradise" as a time of freedom from responsibility and toil. As a child, however, he disdained such paradise, desiring only to do something real and creative. Challenge a child with responsibility, and he'll flourish; cast him as a passive, unproductive recipient of "education," and he'll grow despondent and rebellious. For the child, too, is alive, and as such craves achievement; from the moment of birth he is already actively influencing his surroundings, if only by stimulating his parents with his thirst for knowledge and affection.

The same is true of adults of all ages. The promise of a "happy retirement" is a cruel myth: the very nature of human life is that man knows true happiness only when creatively contributing to the world he inhabits. The weakened physical state of old age (or illness, G‑d forbid) is not a sentence of inactivity, but a challenge to find new--and superior--venues of achievement.

Why

Indeed, such is human nature: life has meaning only when it is productive. But why? Why was the human being so constructed?

Because G‑d created man to be His partner in creation.

The Midrash tells us that "G‑d says to the righteous: Just as I am a creator of worlds, you, too, should do so." The Midrash also recounts an exchange between a Greek philosopher and the talmudic sage Rabbi Hoshiah: "If circumcision is desirable to G‑d," asked the Western thinker, "why didn't He create Adam circumcised?" Replied Rabbi Hoshiah: "Everything that was created in the six days of creation requires adjustment and improvement by man: the mustard seed must be sweetened, wheat must be milled..." G‑d specifically created an unfinished world for man to develop and perfect.

G‑d is the ultimate initiator and giver, granting us existence and life and equipping us with faculties and resources. But G‑d wanted more than passive recipients of His gifts. He wanted a partnership with us, a partnership in which we would create and give as He creates and gives, and He would receive from us as we receive from Him. So He made the drive for achievement the very essence of human life.

A Course of Action

The sad fact remains, however, that retirement, mandatory or otherwise, is a fact of modern living. Year after year, it destroys millions of lives and condemns invaluable human resources (indeed, the most valuable human resources we possess as a race) to complete or near-complete waste. What is one to do in face of this human and social tragedy? Should one embark on a campaign to change this practice and the value system that lies behind it? Should one look for the brighter side of retirement and seek to utilize its positive aspects?

Indeed, we must do both. We must change the attitudes of the leaders of the business and professional worlds, and of society as a whole. Most of all, we must change the self-perception of the aged (and the near-aged, and the near-near-aged) themselves. We must tell them: You are not useless; on the contrary, you are a greater asset to society then ever before, and with each passing day and experience your value increases. The life-changes you are experiencing as a result of your advancing years are not a cause for retirement from productive life, but the opportunity to discover new and more meaningful ways to develop yourself and your surroundings. Long life is a divine gift, and the Almighty has certainly supplied you with the tools to optimally realize it.

At the same time, we must exploit the opportunities that the institution of retirement presents us. If there are countless retired men and women desperately seeking ways to fill their time, let us establish for them centers of Torah study, where they can drop in for several hours a day and increase their knowledge and productivity. Let us open such centers in every community and set up classes and workshops in every nursing home. If the struggles of the workplace prevented many from acquiring the Torah's illuminating perspective on life in their younger years, retirement provides a golden opportunity to learn and grow. Education, like productivity, is a life-long endeavor.

Torah will give them a new lease on life. It will enlighten them to their true worth and potential, and transform them from futile has-beens into beacons of light for their families and communities. Retirement, if utilized properly, can be directed as the most potent force toward its ultimate eradication from the mind and life of man.


Editor's note: This essay is based on talks delivered by the Rebbe on his 70th birthday, Nissan 11, 5732 (March 26, 1972), and ten years later on his 80th birthday. On both these occasions, the Rebbe received tens of thousands of letters from well-wishers across the globe; among these were several that suggested that perhaps it is time he considered "slowing down" and "taking it easy" after his many fruitful decades as a leader and activist. The Rebbe's response was the blistering attack on the very concept of "retirement" articulated here.

The Rebbe also addressed the issue on several other occasions, including a series of Shabbat gatherings in the summer of 1980. He then called for the establishment of Torah-study centers for the aged. Hundreds of such study centers--named, at the Rebbes suggestion, Tiferet Zkeinim ("the glory of the aged")--have since been founded in every corner of the globe by the Rebbe's emissaries. Elements of these talks, as well as several other talks in which the Rebbe discussed the concept of "life as productivity," have also been incorporated in this essay.

The Rebbe himself was a chief exemplar of the Torah perspective on "retirement" he expounded. He celebrated his 70th birthday by initiating the establishment of 71 new educational and social institutions, virtually doubling the Chabad-Lubavitch worldwide outreach network. On his 80th birthday, he again called for a massive expansion of Chabads activities in a six-hour address that ended after 3:00 a.m., following which the Rebbe proceeded to personally distribute a gift--a special edition of the chassidic classic, the Tanya--to each of the 10,000 men, women and children present, the last participant receiving his Tanya at 6:15 a.m.

While the Rebbe had a most impressive list of achievements behind him when he was advised to begin to "enjoy the fruits of his labors" upon his attainment of age 70 in 1972, these pale in comparison with what he had achieved by age 80, which, in turn, are a fraction of the breath and scope of his activities at age 90. Each year brought the revelation of new dimensions to his philosophy and world-outlook, new campaigns and initiatives, new Chabad centers, schools and communities the world over. Also in the years 1992 to 1994, while physically disabled by the massive stroke he suffered in March of 1992, he continued to lead the Chabad movement, issuing directives to his 3,000 emissaries on six continents and the many thousands who turned to him for guidance and direction.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of MeaningfulLife.com. If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email permissions@meaningfullife.com.
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Helen Dudden United Kingdom November 9, 2017

Today, I realised how difficult it was to make changes. I believe Synagogues should be for all, whatever.
I ask for strength courage and strength. Reply

Anonymous UK November 9, 2017

This article confirms my experience. There were many difficulties in my earlier life and I also needed to search for a path to follow. I learned much from my problems and much in my search until I found Judaism, and then I really began to learn. To my surprise I find myself,aged 86, and though severely restricted by Ill-health and constant pain, in what can be achieved in some areas, I must needs do more in others. I can and do study in depth, and in this Chabad.org is my great source of wisdom. I can do little practically to deal with everyday matters, but I can and do encourage and pray for people who are facing problems like my early difficulties. I am encouraged by being told that my efforts are of help elsewhere. To my surprise I find that I am happy, really happy in my old age despite the discomfort; and I am aware of making progress tho' not always sure in what direction. I do not have family but I'm often visited by the children of friends, and I keep in touch with people Reply

Helen Dudden United Kingdom May 16, 2017

Our Synagogues should be accessible, what it Moses who until his death was taken with writing for the future of the Jews.

Are we in G-ds waiting room or living room.

Most certainly my recent ill health has slowed me, but when things are accessible, I'm not slowed down. Reply

Clifford Rothband FL May 3, 2017

The productive period of life seem to be characterized by a misconstrued media. I was taught early on that immortality is guaranteed by our offspring. Thus the phrase LeChaim. The mind or thought process slows with age, or is it to much information? Moses wandered the desert I seem to remember for over 40 years, or was it he lived for over 120, 140 or 900 years? I am confused at 72. TMI. Reply

Maurice M Mizrahi BURKE October 15, 2016

Reference? Can you give the precise reference for this? I could not find it. Thanks.
"The Midrash tells us that "G‑d says to the righteous: Just as I am a creator of worlds, you, too, should do so." Reply

Helen Dudden Bristol August 4, 2016

Jonathan. I understand you. Reply

Elaine Thompson Alpena August 3, 2016

You are right, Mr. Levy, and I apologize for being so dense. I am sorry. By the way, what are bursaries? The closest I could get in my poor dictionary is a definition related to "public revenue." Would it be advice to take advantage of generous governmental welfare opportunities you are referring to? Reply

Jonathan Levy Johannesburg, South Africa. August 2, 2016

For Elaine Thompson ""You can do anything you want to do"-- spoken from the perspective of a life of privilege....."
Elaine - you totally missed the point of my post.
Please read it again (carefully this time)and you may get the message that was conveyed. Reply

Elaine Thompson Alpena August 1, 2016

"You can do anything you want to do"-- spoken from the perspective of a life of privilege, is my guess. The starting line is not the same for everyone and one's government makes a tremendous difference. Reply

Helen Dudden Bristol July 31, 2016

I went to Shul yesterday, a special Shul made up of one smaller Shul and one slightly larger. One Masorti one Orthodox. My time was with the Masorti but only for experience. A shorter time spent in the Orthodox Shul, blessing of children, I'm not either. I'm studying Liberal. We all joined together for Kiddish, wishing each other well for Shabbat. The progressive is also there, the time is shared.

United by faith. Reply

Jonathan Levy Johannesburg, South Africa. July 31, 2016

After my first posting on this site in 2011 I was brought back to it today because of the latest post by Udo Sobotta below.
I am 71 and have, very recently, been asking myself "What can I do now?" People do not want to employ a 71 year old - I can attest to this by the zero responses that I have had to 50+ applications for work. It has (eventually!) struck me that it is entirely up to me to find work for myself. It is no coincidence that I was brought back to this site today. Whether it was the will of G-d or something else I shall never know. However, here in South Africa we have literally millions of poor Black people who, due to our country's previous apartheid policies, have not had the opportunity of having a good education and whose frames of mind are at their lowest. They need encouragment and I will go up to these people in the street and just say: "You can!" "You can what?" You can do anything that you want to do. Bursaries are available - apply for one - you can! Reply

A newbie November 9, 2017
in response to Jonathan Levy:

Jonathan, This is a beautiful choice of something to do in retirement! I am a non-jew who is just learning about Judaism for the first time in my mid-50s. Instead of feeling old, this whole teaching gives me vision. Reply

Helen Dudden Bristol July 31, 2016

Yes Udo, listen and learn. You have life skills only gained through age.

Kindest regards. Reply

KarenJoyceChayaFradleKleinmanBell Riverside, CA USA July 31, 2016

This answer was all over the place. It jumped around from topic to topic and ended with, "Let's make centers for Torah study" so that the time Senior Citizens have will be spend on studying. Pullleeeeze, that is not at all what I want to do with my time. I am 70 years old. I decided that, to make a difference in the world, I will atart a movement for world peace that will work and be productive and practical. With nearly 3,000 members on my Facebook sites, from all over the world and from nearly every religion on earth, I have been teaching people how to have empathy and be kind with those who are unlike themselves. They must agree to rules. No insulting, no saying, "My religion is better than yours", no conversion efforts. Just getting to know each other as important human beings. It is working. There is a time and place for everything. My time would not be used productively by isolation in a room while studying Torah. I am living it. Reply

Udo Sobotta Germany / Singapore July 31, 2016

Retirement! - retirement?? At my age of 59 I am standing at the doorstep to retirement. I am always asking myself: What is retirement. Surely - many people need it because of the hard work during the last 40 or more years. But what about people like me? Full of energy, not feeling anything like ageing. Except a little less power and a little shorter breath after sports. How can I face retirement? At this I even don't want think of it - time will come and then I will see. Hopefully till those days the leader in business and other organisations have learned that it is a huge waste of knowledge and experience to send people for retirement. Up to now I did not spend a single second thinking of 'what to do' after 'D-Day' has come, but this article made me thinking of my own future in which I surely not just want to wait to die. I will leave it to HIM to open me the right doors in the right place at the right time to see my future after retirement. I am pretty sure it will be very busy. Reply

Helen Dudden uk July 27, 2015

As a 67 year old, I have noticed the difference with attitudes towards me, I think its up to each one of us to use our capabilities to the most effective, and positive outcome.

We are living longer, so we have more chances to learn, and keep ourselves active, and be useful in society.

Age can bring restrictions in health, but I feel we must try to be positive. Life skills only come through living and learning. Reply

Ted Baltimore Md May 14, 2015

retirement Life is a journey and old age is part of this cycle. Retire from one job
to retire to another pursuit. Reply

mendel jacobson February 19, 2015

it's amazing!! Reply

Anonymous uk February 2, 2015

old people have done so much for us for us through their lives, so we should pay them respect and show gratitude.

peace Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA June 28, 2014

Aging While we may grow old via the Almighty's harm to us, there is ample reason to worship and love Gd. Even in old age there is nothing more rewarding than to toil, and serve Gd. His gift to us is sufficient such that none should curse Him, heaven forfend. Reply

Michelle September 10, 2012

bless you and thanks! i am sitting here today wondering how to speak with the phsyically dying... and even though I still don't fully know... it came to me that all I need now is a blank book and some inspiration from my Aunt, whom G-d willing, if she is and when she is able I will ask her to help me fill it... of blessings and memories and little things that pop into her mind that she can leave... behind... as a reminder of her love for life and as a companion for those that this time can not accompany her physically...where she is going. I couldn't read all this article, my concentration left me but what I read about the Torah's view of old age i was reminded that my role is only now to find a way to listen and share what time we have left on this earth... maybe visiting the hospice won't be so necessary anymore to find any more words or question or query but just instead maybe... I can be a guide or a prompt. Reply

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