“Good Advice[1] Parashat Beha’alotecha 5774

Parashat Beha’alotecha contains the only example in the Torah of forced retirement. Regarding the Levites we are told [Bemidbar 8:24-26] “This is [the rule] concerning the Levites: From the age of twenty five years and upwards he shall enter the legion to work in the Mishkan. From the age of fifty he shall retire from the work legion and shall do no more work. He shall [then] serve his brethren in the Mishkan to keep the charge, but he shall not perform work”. A Levite has a very short career. He doesn’t begin working until he turns twenty-five, and when he turns fifty they send him off with a plaque and perhaps a gold watch.

Except that’s not what the Torah says. The Torah uses two different verbs to describe the Levite’s “work”: “Avoda”, translated as “work”, and “Sherut”, translated as “service”. Between the ages of twenty-five and fifty, he performs “Avoda”. Most of the commentators interpret this word as “schlepping”: Setting up the Mishkan, taking it down, cleaning the gutters and mowing the lawn. After the age of fifty, the word “avoda” is replaced by the word “sherut”. The Levite shall serve but he shall not work. What is the difference between “service” and “work”? According to the Midrash, it seems that after the Levite turns fifty he schleps a little bit less. Is that it?

I propose that the difference between “work” and “service” is qualitative, and not quantitative. Let’s return to the verses we quoted above. We translated the words “v’sheret et echav” as “He shall serve [for] his brothers”. However, Rashi notes that the Hebrew word “et” can also mean “together with”, as in “He shall serve together with his brothers”. Between the ages of twenty-five and fifty, our Levite was essentially a loner. He did his schlepping alone and he mowed the lawn alone, probably with loud music blaring in his headphones. He had his own goals and he was fully capable of reaching them on his own, thank you very much. Or so he thought.

But when the Levite turns fifty, he begins to understand that no man is an island and that in order to reach his goals he must serve “together with his brethren”. He ceases “working” and begins “serving”. The first person to perform “service” in the Torah is Joseph, who serves Potiphar. But before Joseph can serve him, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 39:4] “Joseph found favour in [Potiphar’s] eyes and [only then] he served him”.  When Joseph was just another slave, he “worked” for Potiphar. But when a relationship developed between the two, when their goals merged, Joseph’s “work” turned into “service”. The same thing happens to the Levite. While the job remains pretty much the same after he turns fifty, his change in viewpoint elevates his “work” to “service”.

What causes this change? I dare say it is the mere fact that the Levite has matured. He has reached an age where he has enough experience to understand that man on his own has limitations that can be surpassed only when man joins together with man. When the Levite turns fifty, he does not retire. He becomes a “Levite Emeritus”. He works together with other Levites, for the mutual benefit of the entire tribe, enabling the attainment of goals that none of them could have reached individually.

The only question remaining is why this metamorphosis happens when the Levite turns fifty. Why not sixty? Why not sixty-seven?[2]An answer can be found in a well-known Mishnah in Pirkei Avot [5:21]. In this particular Mishnah, Rabbi Yehuda ben Taimah describes the growth and maturation of a human being as a function of time: “When a person is five years old he begins learning Torah…When he is eighteen he should marry… When he is forty he acquires wisdom (bina). When he is fifty he can give advice (Ben chamishim l’etzah)”. What happens at age fifty that enables a person to give advice? Has he become wiser and is thus able to give better advice than he could in his youth? Most likely not, because according to the Mishnah, he acquired wisdom at the age of forty. Why does he need to wait another ten years before he can give meaningful advice?

To answer this question, we should look at the first person in the Torah who gave advice. This, of course, is Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro. Yitro sees a long line of people waiting to be judged by Moshe. Moshe works from dawn to dusk but he still cannot make a dent in his backlog. Suddenly Yitro has an epiphany: If Moshe continues down this path, he and his nation are going to wither. But if he were to delegate responsibility to other people, he wouldn’t have to work so hard! Even better – Moshe could make a hierarchy of courts. Moshe would preside over the highest court and he would hear only the most difficult cases. What a brilliant idea! What an example of dazzling simplicity! In fact, the idea is so dazzlingly simple that my six-year-old daughter probably would have come up with the same idea had she seen the long queue of people waiting for Moshe. What is so earth-shattering about Yitro’s advice?

Yitro’s innovation was not in the advice he gives, but in the caveat he gives before he advises Moshe [Shemot 18:19]: “Now listen to me and I will give you some advice, and may Hashem be with you”. Yitro knew that the solution to Moshe’s problem seemed obvious. But Yitro also knew that absolutely nothing in this world is a certainty. Even the best laid plans can backfire. A human being is fickle and unpredictable. His reaction to a stimulus may be completely different than predicted. When many human beings group together, things only get worse. A group of people develops what is called “emergent behavior”. The group takes on a life of its own, with a whole new set of dynamics. The responses of people in a group may be completely different than their responses as individuals. And so when Moshe suggested to the people that he delegate responsibility to other judges, the response could have been anywhere from accolades to mutiny: “Whaddaya mean you’re not going to judge me? My case isn’t important enough for you? You think he’s better than me? You think you’re better than me?” Yitro’s idea would succeed only by the Grace of G-d. This was Yitro’s innovation. Someone younger, more sure of himself, would have surveyed the situation and said “Moshe, here’s what you have to do. Trust me. It’s going to work”. Yitro saw things differently. It wasn’t that he was less certain of his advice. He was just as certain as our young etzas-gibber[3]. He was certain that unless Hashem backed the plan, it was doomed to fail.

Rabbi Yehuda ben Taimah believes that it takes time for a person to acquire Yitro’s world view. For the first fifty years of his life a person is too sure of himself. He is smug. He does not see the bigger picture because he believes that he sees well enough from his vantage point. When he reaches fifty, however, things begin to look differently.

Now we can return to the Levites. What allows a Levite to move from “work” towards “service”? I believe that is the same world view that enables him to offer advice. Advice requires two people. In order for me to give advice, there needs to be someone out there who is receiving the advice. Similarly, in order for me to offer service, I have to serve somebody[4]. Giving service and giving advice require opening one’s world wide enough to let someone else in, and this capability, in turn, comes only with age.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774


[1] This shiur is an amalgam of two Divrei Torah I gave last week. One was given at a Kiddush celebrating my wife’s 50th birthday, and other was given long distance at a party celebrating my father’s 80th birthday. I wish both my father and my wife long, happy, and full lives.

[2] Sixty-seven is the age of mandatory retirement at the company I work for, as it is for many other companies in Israel.

[3] A quasi-derogatory term for a person who freely doles out advice.

[4] Rav Reuven Zimmerman once said “It may be the devil, or it may be the L-rd, but you’ve got to serve somebody” but this is a topic for another shiur.