Numerous articles have been published globally in recent weeks, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, about the seeming disposable status of older citizens given their greater vulnerability to illness and the limitations that have emerged with regard to health resources in many locations. However one wishes to refer to our demographic, as senior citizen, retiree or elder, I think I speak for many when I say that the pandemic has brought out a fair amount of anger, stress and disappointment with regard to the behavior of many younger people. This for the simple reason that so many have already decided to go about their lives ignoring requirements to wear masks in public and maintain social distancing. This signals to me and to so many of my contemporaries the lack of mutual societal responsibility on the part of many younger people towards older citizens.
Ageism is certainly not a new phenomenon. It’s just that recognition of it has been heightened by the current situation. The notion that we are “disposable” is merely an extreme but logical extension of the already prevalent attitude that we place an undue burden on society.
While the pandemic has placed a magnifying glass on attitudes towards “Third Agers (TAs)”, the idea that a society’s older citizens are less relevant, less capable of contributing and essentially expendable is frankly not only laughable but also contrary to Jewish tradition.
Devarim 32:7 (דברים):
Remember the days of old; reflect upon the years of [other] generations. Ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will inform you.
זכר ימות עולם בינו שנות דר ודר שאל אביך ויגדך זקניך ויאמרו לך
In so many places in our liturgy we see expressions of the importance placed on honoring and valuing the older generation and the continuing significance placed on the contributions that they are capable of still making. In the words of Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, “It has been said that contemporary Western civilization can be characterized as a youth culture. Judaism objects to such a culture. It insists that there is a role for the elders and it is not just a marginal role.”
Job 12:12 (איוב):
In elders there is wisdom and in length of days there is understanding.
בישישים חכמה וארך ימים תבונה
For many Third Agers, finding purpose in their life has entailed reinventing and then identifying new employment opportunities. This is exactly what I did following a 35-year finance career in the U.S. Upon moving to Israel over a decade ago, I spent five years working for a not-for-profit, and then another three as a manager in a FinTech start-up. In both instances, I was fortunate to meet senior managers who believed in the value that I could bring to their much younger staffs. As it turned out, for both organizations, I was their oldest employee. My circle of friends includes TA full-timers, part timers and consultants. Some are mentoring while others have gone on to establish and run their own businesses. We are far from obsolete.
For some, finding purpose has been expressed in their social action on behalf of our demographic and in society at large. This can be seen, for example, in the work of TAs who push for active, healthy lifestyles, advocate on behalf of consumers, seek to provide services and products and identify potential points of impact on all manner of social issues. One of the finest examples I can think of is a group of friends who formed a committee in Modiin, where I live, which successfully advocated for the allocation of space in a senior center for weekly meetings of English speaking olim. They have gone on to provide diverse and helpful weekly programming for this growing group of city residents.
Pirke Avot 4:26 (פרקי אבות):
A person who learns from the old, to who is he compared? To one who eats ripe grapes and drinks wine that is aged
והלומד מן הזקנים למה הוא דומה? לאוכל ענבים בשולות ושותה יין ישן
I found an explanation of this in a recent article by Rabbi Nachman Kahana: “The rabbis, in their great wisdom, were revealing an important lesson that is inherent in a glass of old wine. An elderly person sips a glass of old kiddush wine, and it is good and sweet. Suddenly, he realizes that “old” is not necessarily worthless. On the contrary, just as old wine has greater value than freshly produced wine, so too can the elderly perform functions in society which the young are unable to do.”
If the Torah teaches us that ‘older’ equates with ‘wiser’ and we are commanded to respect the elderly, how is it that there is such a disconnect between the generations? This is not a new problem:
Aichah 5:12 (איכה):
No respect has been shown the elders (in referring to the sins that contributed to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash)
פני זקנים לא נהדרו
Paul Socken, in a recent opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post (4/28/20) provides an answer: “What lack within us gave rise to the discussion of the disposability of the elderly? This crisis has exposed a materialistic calculus, a coarsening of society’s discourse…. I would argue that we have seen the underbelly of a society that has forgotten its roots, no longer has a strong set of values and does not understand the importance of honoring all life. If ever there was a time to rethink the journey we have taken as a society and recalculate our direction, it is now.”
Wisdom from the Lubavitcher Rebbe:
The shining example of the ultimate Third Ager, in my opinion, was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He had strong beliefs about retirement and acted upon them in the most impressive of ways:
“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.”
When he was age 70, he initiated the establishment of 71 new educational and social institutions, doubling Chabad’s global outreach network. At 80 he gave a six-hour address running most of the night, calling for massive expansion of Chabad activity around the world. By the age of 90 he was still going strong, leading thousands of emissaries on six continents, providing guidance and launching new campaigns, while opening more centers and schools everywhere.
My own personal thinking on all of this can be summarized by the phrase “don’t think retired – think redirected”. Today’s TAs constitute a large pool of people with the time availability, experience and wisdom to contribute to society and make a difference. We are living longer and remaining active longer than ever before. The trick is to find what your passion is and unleash your potential as an individual. We are all different and what works for one might not be right for another. Will you delay retirement, reinvent and seek a different career, volunteer, engage in serious social action, pursue personal interests and hobbies, mentor or teach? The key is to find ongoing, productive and meaningful endeavors tailored to suit individual circumstances and preferences.
Realistically, reaching one’s full potential alone can often be difficult. Therefore, we should show support and encouragement to our peers by sharing information and expertise, by networking and connecting to other TAs with complementary skills and interests and by forming teams to achieve common goals. As we work past the instability and unknown structural changes that may come from the Covid-19 period, Third Agers need to remain engaged in helping to address the social and economic issues that will arise. We need to encourage all our fellow citizens to follow this ancient wisdom:
Midrash Shemot 3:8 (מדרש שמות)
Go and gather the elders of Israel, for the elders will always help Israel stand.
לך ואספת את זקני ישראל לעולם זקנים מעמידים את ישראל
Perhaps doing so will help us to recoup our rightful place in society, teach those who are younger about the importance of shared responsibility and hopefully contribute to economic development for the good of us all.
**Many of the thoughts and insights about third agers expressed herein have been inspired by conversations with Morry Priwler, a Third Age activist living in Modiin, Israel