‘The forty-nine year old Levite’

“When your best days are yester, the rest’r twice as dear” (Stephen Schwartz, Pippin)

“When your best days are yester, the rest’r twice as dear” (Stephen Schwartz, Pippin)

I personally like this thought better than Kohelet’s  (Ecclesiates), when he says, “Appreciate your vigor in the days of your youth, before those days of sorrow come and those years arrive of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them.” (Eccl 12:1). It’s all about getting old, people.

The Torah is filled with old people. Moses lived to 120, and we actually wish that for people on their birthdays, though it seems a mixed blessing to me. Sarah had a baby at 90, but then she also had help in the house.   Moses is constantly gathering the elders of the community, at God’s suggestion, to glean their wisdom and support him in his leadership.  We’re told in Leviticus to “rise before an elder and show deference to the aged” The models of aging are plentiful and positive.

But ask most older folks today, and they’ll tell you respect and deference are often in short supply.  Especially when it comes to working. Age discrimination laws aside, and there has been great progress in that area, we are far more willing to accept the connection between having work to do and feeling ready to face each day when it involves younger folks instead of the elderly, whom we feel should be “resting” in their old age.

I am reminded of this when I read B’ha’alotecha¸ in Numbers, in regard to the Levites. Now, here’s a group with a job description laid out by God, no less. They’re the ones who are charged with taking care of the Tent of Meeting and Tabernacle. They’re quite a unique group, and it must have been quite a privilege to do this work. But then God requires a forced retirement age:  fifty. After that, they must “retire from the workforce and shall serve no more” (8:25). Oh, they can assist a little here and there, standing guard, but they aren’t allowed into the inner sanctum anymore. Just imagine how difficult that last year of Tabernacle work must have been for that 49-year old Levite!

There is an interesting book published by Jewish Lights called, “A Heart of Wisdom: Making the Jewish Journey from Midlife through the Elder Years”, edited by Susan Berrin. In it are many essays and stories about people who are learning to age Jewishly, and what that means. We have lots of rituals to mark the passage of time: baby naming, coming-of-age, weddings and funerals, and there are Jewish ways to do each of them.    

But what about the passage of time that brings us to older age?  For that, some people have invented rituals that are Jewishly-bound; that is, they stem from an already-existing Jewish model and have been adapted to address the issue of aging. For example, some women have begun going to a mikvah (ritual bath) on their 50th or 60th birthday. I went at the beginning of my “jubilee year,” and it was a profound experience.   

A woman named Savina J. Teubal created a simchat hochma, “a rite of passage ceremony that would establish [an older woman’s] presence in [her] community as an elder, as a functional and useful human being” (A Heart of Wisdom, p. 184). Another woman, Anne Tolbert, created a personal “Seder” to celebrate aging, complete with four glasses of wine, readings, and poetry. (A Heart of Wisdom,  p. 279)

Is it a coincidence that women are coming up with these new and creative rituals for life’s passing?  I don’t think so. So many of these women, just coming into their 60+ years, found that the women’s movement in secular life had a profound effect on their lives in the Jewish community also.

Development of women’s Seders, becoming an adult bat mitzvah, and learning to be part of the Jewish ritual life were direct results, in the non-Orthodox community. And even within the Orthodox community there are organizations like JOFA: Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Feminism aside, I know women in their 70s and older who are still thinking, “I’m not working at a job, my children are on their own…what’s my role, now?”

The loss of purpose isn’t limited to women any more, now that so many women and men have lost their jobs and are trying to redefine themselves. The teacher or manager who is “encouraged” to take early retirement must feel like that 49-year old Levite, saying, “I’m not ready. Whoa there…who said I was ready?”  Or, as Eliza Doolittle says to Henry Higgins in the second act, “What’s to become of me?” One would hope that the Levite who ages-out had a role to play amongst Moses’ elders, who continued to consult, guide and teach.   

But back to Stephen Schwartz for a minute.  Pippin’s grandmother goes on to sing:

Here is a secret I never have told, maybe you’ll understand why

I believe if I refuse to grow old, I can stay young till I die….

And watching your flings be flung all over makes me feel young all over

in just no time at all.

We don’t expect the elderly still have the same desires for usefulness, camaraderie, belonging to something that younger people do, yet it should be obvious they still have much to offer. Anyway, this song always brings a tear to my eye, and brings the house down every time I see it on stage. That’s the way to go out….in a center spot, with cute young guys singing backup, and stopping the show.

Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.  

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