Some years after my retirement from the pulpit a congregant met me and asked, “Fancy seeing you. Are you still alive?” Oy vey!
I recalled my childhood when my mother was ill and the next-door boy, with a child’s cruel tactlessness, shouted over the fence, “Isn’t your mother dead yet?”
My congregant’s question comes to mind when I realize that I’m no longer so young – Na’ar hayiti gam zakanti, “I was young, now I am old” (Psalm 37:25). It echoes in the prayers, with their heart-rending sentence, Al tashlichenu l’et ziknah, “Cast us not away in time of old age” (Psalm 71:9).
In a column he wrote for the Jerusalem Post some years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has an unusual take on this verse: “Don’t cast us into old age… Let us not be old before our time!” Not just individuals but the Jewish people: may Jews and Judaism never feel decrepit and lose their vitality and verve.
When I worked for the Association for Jewish Youth in Britain a know-all teenager once told me, “Everyone over 20 is a has-been”. I guess that teenager is still alive – a “has-been” himself, now in his 60s or 70s. In my case, I’m still alive and active, and not dead yet.
Pir’kei Avot says old age is 60. Psalm 90 says three score and ten or (if you’re strong) four score. These days 60, 70 or 80 are nothing special. In Biblical times they were. Al Tashlichenu implied, “Bless us to reach 60”. Since the poet added, “When our strength is spent, do not abandon us”, he obviously meant “60 – in good health”. Today life expectancy is reaching double 60 to the proverbial 120 – but it must be “120 without falling apart”.
Most of us have two or three post-retirement decades. We mostly remain healthy without serious deterioration until just before we die. We spend as much time in retirement as we did in studying and preparing for a career. We have a professional life of about forty years, sandwiched between two lengthy stages when society supports us and the working population complains that retirees are a burden on the taxpayers.
Yet unlike ancient Sparta where the elderly were expected to disappear and die, grey power can influence and improve the structure of society. Starting with Moses, whose public career took off at 80, many leadership figures have assumed or held power long after the normal retirement age. When a public event was planned in Britain to mark Sir Robert Mayer’s 100th birthday, the organizer told him, “Robert, if you die before your birthday I’ll never speak to you again!”
The retiree generation aren’t dead yet. They’re still capable of harnessing talents, energies and experience to the benefit of civilization, both in order to keep busy and to contribute to the quality of society – unlike the past, when grandparents were expected to sit home on a cushioned armchair and creak through their anecdotage.
As time unfolds you lose a degree of power, independence and self-confidence. Your energies slip away, but not always, and not entirely. The twelfth chapter of Kohelet paints a picture of developing decrepitude which old people tend to read with a grin.
But even when things begin to go, there’s still a lot left. Casting people on the scrap heap because of chronology is outright foolish. They don’t fall apart the moment they turn 65 (or some other artificial age). Old people can still give, even at a reduced pace. Most oldies still have their marbles. They can’t run, jump or hop like they used to, but they can still be productive and creative if society encourages them – in its own interest as well as theirs. Not only in all the many and varied walks of ordinary life, but in public affairs and national governance too.
I marked the late Sir Asher Joel’s retirement from Australian politics by suggesting from the pulpit that every parliament should have a second chamber called the House of Eminent Citizens. I wasn’t joking. I nominated Sir Asher as a founding member. I was sufficiently lacking in false modesty to hope that one day there would be a place in that House for me too.