The Torah considers old age a virtue and a blessing. Throughout the Torah, “old” (zakein) is synonymous with “wise”; the Torah commands us to respect all elderly, regardless of their scholarship and piety, because the many trials and experiences that each additional year of life brings yield a wisdom that the most accomplished young prodigy cannot equal.
The Torah describes Avraham as one who “grew old and came along in days” (Bereishis 24:1)—his accumulated days, each replete with learning and achievement, meant that with each passing day his worth increased. Thus, a ripe old age is regarded as one of the greatest blessings to be bestowed upon man.
This is in marked contrast to the prevalent attitude in the “developed” countries of today’s world. In the 20th-century Western world, old age is a liability. Youth is seen as the highest credential in every field from business to government, where a younger generation insists on “learning from their own mistakes” rather than building upon the life experience of their elders. At 50, a person is considered “over the hill” and is already receiving hints that his position would be better filled by someone 25 years his junior; in many companies and institutions, retirement is mandatory at age 65 or earlier.
Thus society dictates that one’s later years be marked by inactivity and decline. The aged are made to feel that they are useless, if not a burden, and had best confine themselves to retirement villages and nursing homes. After decades of achievement, their knowledge and talent are suddenly worthless; after decades of contributing to society, they are suddenly undeserving recipients, grateful for every time the younger generation takes off from work and play to drop by for a half-hour chat and the requisite Father’s Day necktie.
On the surface, the modern-day attitude seems at least partly justified. Is it not a fact that a person physically weakens as he advances in years? True, the inactivity of retirement has been shown to be a key factor in the deterioration of the elderly; but is it still not an inescapable fact of nature that the body of a 70-year-old is not the body of a 30-year-old?
But this, precisely, is the point: Is a person’s worth to be measured by his physical prowess? By the number of work hours and intercontinental flights that can be extracted from him per week? What is at issue here is more than the disenfranchisement of an entire segment of the population whose only crime is that they were born a decade or two earlier than the rest; our attitude toward the aged reflects our very conception of “value.” If a person’s physical strength has waned while his sagacity and insight have grown, do we view this as an improvement or a decline? If a person’s output has diminished in quantity but has increased in quality, has his net worth risen or fallen?
Indeed, a 20-year-old can dance the night away while his grandmother tires after a few minutes. But man was not created to dance for hours on end. Man was created to make life on earth purer, brighter, and holier than it was before he came on the scene. Seen in this light, the spiritual maturity of the aged more than compensates for their lessened physical strength; indeed, the diminution of one’s physical drives can be utilized as a spiritual asset, as it allows a positive reordering of priorities that is much more difficult in one’s youth when the quest for material gains is at its height.
Certainly, the physical health of the body affects one’s productivity. Life is a marriage of body and soul, and is at its most productive when nurtured by a sound physique as well as a healthy spirit. But the effects of the aging process upon a person’s productivity are largely determined by the manner in which he regards this marriage and partnership. Which is the means and which is the end? If the soul is nothing more than an engine to drive the body’s procurement of its needs and aims, then the body’s physical weakening with age brings with it a spiritual deterioration as well—a descent into boredom, futility and despair. But when one regards the body as an accessory to the soul, the very opposite is true: the spiritual growth of old age invigorates the body, enabling one to lead a productive existence for as long as the Al‑mighty grants one the gift of life.
Life: A Definition
But there is more to it than that. There is more to the difference between the Torah’s perspective on old age and that of the modern world than the classic dichotomy between body and soul, more than the question of material versus spiritual priority.
At the basis of the institution of retirement is the notion that life is composed of productive and non-productive periods.
The first 20 to 30 years of life are seen as a time of little or no achievement, as a person acquires knowledge and training in preparation for the productive period of life.
The next 30 to 40 years are the time in which his or her creative energies are realized; he now returns what has been invested in him by his now passive elders, and invests, in turn, in the still passive younger generation.
Finally, as he enters his “twilight years,” he puts his period of “real” achievement behind him; he has worked hard “all his life,” so he now ought to settle down and enjoy the fruits of his labors. If the creative urge still agitates his aging body, he is advised to find some harmless hobby with which to fill his time. Indeed, time is now something to be “filled” and gotten over with as he whiles away his days on life’s sidelines, his knowledge and abilities filed away in the attic of old age. He has now returned full circle to his childhood: once again he is a passive recipient in a world shaped and run by the initiative of others.
Torah, however, recognizes no such distinction between life’s phases, for it sees productivity as the very essence of life: the words “a non-productive life-period” are an oxymoron. There are marked differences between childhood, adulthood, etc., but these differ in the manner, not the fact, of a person’s productivity. Retirement and the passive enjoyment of the fruits of one’s labor also have their time and place—in the World to Come. In the words of the Talmud, “Today is the time to do; tomorrow, to reap the reward.” The very fact that G‑d has granted a person a single additional day of bodily life means that he has not yet concluded his mission in life, that there is still something for him to achieve in this world.
Thus, the aphorism that “man is born to toil” (Iyov 5:7) expresses a most basic fact of human nature. A person experiences true satisfaction only from something he has earned by his own effort and initiative; undeserved gifts and handouts (“the bread of shame” in Kabbalistic terminology) are unfulfilling and dehumanizing. As the Talmud observes, “a person would rather a single measure of his own grain than nine measures of his fellow’s.”
A working adult, burdened by the demands of life, may nostalgically reminisce on his childhood “paradise” as a time of freedom from responsibility and toil. As a child, however, he disdained such paradise, desiring only to do something real and creative. Challenge a child with responsibility, and he’ll flourish; cast him as a passive, unproductive recipient of “education,” and he’ll grow despondent and rebellious. For the child, too, is alive, and therefore craves achievement; from the moment of birth he is already actively influencing his surroundings, if only by stimulating his parents with his thirst for knowledge and affection.
The same is true of adults of all ages. 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.
Indeed, such is human nature: life has meaning only when it is productive. But why? Why was the human being so constructed?
Because G‑d created man to be His partner in creation.
The Midrash tells us that “G‑d says to the righteous: Just as I am a creator of worlds, you, too, should do so.” The Midrash also recounts an exchange between a Greek philosopher and the Talmudic sage Rabbi Hoshiah: “If circumcision is desirable to G‑d,” asked the Western thinker, “why didn’t He create Adam circumcised?” Replied Rabbi Hoshiah: “Everything that was created in the six days of creation requires adjustment and improvement by man: the mustard seed must be sweetened, wheat must be milled . . .” G‑d specifically created an unfinished world for man to develop and perfect.
G‑d is the ultimate initiator and giver, granting us existence and life and equipping us with faculties and resources. But G‑d wanted more than passive recipients of His gifts. He wanted a partnership with us, a partnership in which we would create and give as He creates and gives, and He would receive from us as we receive from Him. So He made the drive for achievement the very essence of human life.
A Course Of Action
The sad fact remains, however, that retirement, mandatory or otherwise, is a fact of modern living. Year after year, it destroys millions of lives and condemns invaluable human resources (indeed, the most valuable human resources we possess as a race) to complete or near-complete waste. What is one to do in face of this human and social tragedy? Should one embark on a campaign to change this practice and the value system that lies behind it? Should one look for the brighter side of retirement and seek to utilize its positive aspects?
Indeed, we must do both. We must change the attitudes of the leaders of the business and professional worlds, and of society as a whole. Most of all, we must change the self-perception of the aged (and the near-aged, and the near-near-aged) themselves. We must tell them: You are not useless; on the contrary, you are a greater asset to society than ever before, and with each passing day and experience your value increases. The life-changes you are experiencing as a result of your advancing years are not a cause for retirement from productive life, but the opportunity to discover new and more meaningful ways to develop yourself and your surroundings. Long life is a Divine gift, and the Al‑mighty has certainly supplied you with the tools to optimally realize it.
At the same time, we must exploit the opportunities that the institution of retirement presents us. If there are countless retired men and women desperately seeking ways to fill their time, let us establish for them centers of Torah study, where they can drop in for several hours a day and increase their knowledge and productivity. Let us open such centers in every community and set up classes and workshops in every nursing home. If the struggles of the workplace prevented many from acquiring the Torah’s illuminating perspective on life in their younger years, retirement provides a golden opportunity to learn and grow. Education, like productivity, is a lifelong endeavor.
Torah will give them a new lease on life. It will enlighten them to their true worth and potential, and transform them from futile has-beens into beacons of light for their families and communities. Retirement, if utilized properly, can be directed as the most potent force toward its ultimate eradication from the mind and life of man. v
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber. Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com via Chabad.org. Find more Torah articles for the whole family at www.chabad.org/parshah.
Note: This essay is based on talks delivered by the Rebbe on his 70th birthday, 11 Nissan, 5732 (March 26, 1972), and ten years later on his 80th birthday. On both these occasions, the Rebbe received tens of thousands of letters from well-wishers across the globe; among these were several that suggested that perhaps it is time he considered “slowing down” and “taking it easy” after his many fruitful decades as a leader and activist. The Rebbe’s response was the blistering attack on the very concept of retirement articulated here.