The Ageless Pursuit of Purpose

June 3, 2024

A few years ago, I read about a remarkable man named Jerry Reid. Along with thousands of others, Jerry graduated from the University of Virginia. But unlike his fellow seniors, Jerry was 70 years old at graduation! He had started college 50 years earlier but dropped out. At 66, he enrolled in the University’s night school and graduated as a “senior citizen senior.”

Jerry wasn’t just a student; he was an avid fan of the Cavaliers, the University of Virginia basketball team. He was a leading member of the Hoo Crew, the student section alongside the court. Jerry would arrive at games four hours before tip-off to secure the best seat, stand and heckle the refs, and storm the court with the rest of the student mob when Virginia won big games. He was a special guy and clearly one of Virginia’s most beloved students.

But as I read about Jerry, I couldn’t decide whether he was my role model or completely insane. I wasn’t sure how to react to his story. As usual, I found the answer in the Bible.

The beginning of the book of Numbers focuses on the tribe of Levi. Each of the first three Torah portions discusses the Levites—how they were chosen to serve God full-time, the various kinds of work they did in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple, and how that work was divided among the Levite families. As a Levite, these weeks are meaningful for me, and especially for my father, the proudest Levite I’ve ever met.

However, a number of years ago when we came to the Torah portion of Bamidbar, my father was not as excited as usual. When I asked him why, he showed me the verse that was upsetting him:

It was the year my father had turned 50, and it was difficult for him to accept the profound change in his potential role in the Temple. But was my father correct in his understanding that he would no longer be able to serve in the future Temple? Was there any way for me to comfort him?

According to Nachmanides, this verse means that only Levites between the ages of 30 and 50 are permitted to work in the Temple. At the age of 50, the Levites are forcibly retired and finished with their service. This notion was depressing for my father, a Levite who had been waiting his whole life for a chance to serve in the Temple but turned 50 before it was built.

But the medieval commentator Rashi explains the “forced retirement” (Numbers 8:25) of the Levites differently. Though they will no longer work in the same capacity as before, Rashi clarifies that those who turn 50 still have an important role. Instead of carrying the heavy loads of the Tabernacle, the older Levites sing, open and close the gates, and load the wagons. Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal, explains that from the age of 30-50, Levites were in their physical prime and therefore tasked with doing the heavy lifting. It was only when they turned 50 and were no longer able to do heavy physical labor that new opportunities to serve God opened up.

This perspective offers a valuable lesson: getting older is not the end of the line; it’s an opportunity to serve in a new and different way.

The common notion of retirement views life in stages of productivity and non-productivity. The first 20-30 years are for acquiring knowledge and training, the next 20-30 years are for being productive, and the “twilight years” are for enjoying the fruits of our labor. We often tell older people to find harmless hobbies, get some good exercise, and enjoy life. But productivity in old age? It’s not even on the radar screen.

This standard approach to retirement is a violation of Jewish belief. In the biblical worldview, there is no room for the concept of “retirement.” We are never finished with being productive. Every human being—child, adult, senior citizen—has a deep need to accomplish. God needs something from each of us in every period of our lives.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells a beautiful story about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Telushkin’s father, the Rebbe’s accountant, continued his work even as he grew older and weaker. After suffering a major stroke, the Rebbe sent a messenger to ask him a tax question while he was recovering in the hospital. At first, Rabbi Telushkin was shocked by the Rebbe’s audacity, but then he realized the Rebbe’s intention. The Rebbe was reminding his father that he was still needed and could still be productive. By bringing work to Mr. Telushkin he was bringing him back to life

So, what should we think of Jerry Reid, the 70-year-old leader of the Hoo Crew? Jerry’s energy and zest for life are inspiring. However, his goal seems to be to relive his youth. While his enthusiasm is admirable, he seems to by missing a key point. We must never stop being productive, but the way we are productive as we age should change. And that’s not a sad fact of life—it’s something to embrace.

Life’s purpose doesn’t diminish with age; it transforms. As we grow older, our roles may change, but our capacity to contribute and find meaning remains ever-present. Embracing this shift allows us to continue making a difference, finding fulfillment in new and profound ways.

Rabbi Elie Mischel

Rabbi Elie Mischel is the Director of Education at Israel365. Before making Aliyah in 2021, he served as the Rabbi of Congregation Suburban Torah in Livingston, NJ. He also worked for several years as a corporate attorney at Day Pitney, LLP. Rabbi Mischel received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Rabbi Mischel also holds a J.D. from the Cardozo School of Law and an M.A. in Modern Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He is also the editor of HaMizrachi Magazine.

Rabbi Elie Mischel

Rabbi Elie Mischel is the Director of Education at Israel365. Before making Aliyah in 2021, he served as the Rabbi of Congregation Suburban Torah in Livingston, NJ. He also worked for several years as a corporate attorney at Day Pitney, LLP. Rabbi Mischel received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Rabbi Mischel also holds a J.D. from the Cardozo School of Law and an M.A. in Modern Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He is also the editor of HaMizrachi Magazine.

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