“What are you doing with yourself lately?” inquired the Rebbe of his visitor, an elderly rabbi from Australia.

“I’m retired.”


“I’m retired,” enunciated the rabbi, somewhat louder than before.

“Eh,” repeated the Rebbe, this time cupping his hand behind his ear.

“I. AM. RETIRED!” the rabbi shouted, and to make his meaning perfectly clear, added, “I’m no longer the rabbi of my shul. I don’t do the job I used to. I don’t get paid. I am retired!”

With a firm shake of his head, the Rebbe totally rejected the idea of retirement. “It’s not rational and it’s not healthy. A person must have a purpose in life and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. You don’t have to do the same thing,” the Rebbe explained, “and you don’t necessarily even need to be paid for your efforts, but you must have a five-year plan.

“I have a five-year plan,” the Rebbe, then well over 80 years old, said of himself, “and I’m working right now on a plan for the following five years. A person must set goals for himself and live his life to fulfill them. You must have a five-year plan.”

I was reminded of this story when reading about the recent debate over raising the retirement age from 65 to 70. Advances in public health mean that people are living longer, and it is no longer economically viable to put people out to pasture for decades. People will be retired for far longer than in the past, and there will be fewer working people supporting each retiree.

Most of the commentary I have seen centers around the economics of the pension, whether it is fair to deny Social Security to people who paid taxes throughout their working life, and whether we have the right to saddle future generations with the responsibility of paying for our current lifestyle. Yet I have not seen much discussion about the purpose of retirement and whether giving up work while still fit and strong is inherently healthy.

People have an intrinsic need to feel useful. We crave purposeful activity and would feel intellectually and socially stunted if there was no reward for our efforts. Sitting back doing nothing sounds enjoyable in the abstract, yet quickly wears one down when attempted in real life. Vacations are only fun because we know we’ll eventually get to return to real life.

You don’t have to be paid, but you do need to feel useful. You can lecture, volunteer, publish your memoirs, or look after your grandchildren, but you must have a plan and a reason to get up in the morning. Sitting at home watching TV or meandering around the golf course is a shortcut to dying of boredom.

The Torah reading of Bechukotai begins, “If you walk in my ways and keep my commandments, then I will bless you.”1 G‑d’s ways are pleasant, and you will never regret living your life according to His plan. But even those who have enjoyed decades of fulfillment in their personal, professional and spiritual lives need to be constantly “walking” and growing.

Life is like climbing up a down escalator—if you’re standing still, you’re moving backwards. So don’t waste time with down time. If you truly want to be blessed, keep on working and walking in the ways of G‑d.