How old do you think you will be when you retire?
Pope Benedict XVI retired Feb. 28. I am not sure if they are throwing him a retirement party at the Vatican and if he will get a gold watch, but I sure hope he has a good pension plan. It is remarkable that it’s been over 600 years since the last pope retired, but it must be a hard job—even if you are infallible—and he is not a young man. He tweeted a message yesterday after his last official public address and asked people to pray for him. It is a small request for a man who has spent decades praying on behalf of others.
In these difficult days for the Catholics, he also said that he was not abandoning the church, even though he was stepping down from his position and apparently must trade his red shoes for brown. The word “abandon” is a strong word and made me think of a verse from psalms that points to what often happens as retirement approaches: “Do not abandon me in old age; do not forsake me when my strength has weakened” (71:9). In the Jewish tradition, old age is associated with wisdom; a “zaken” in Hebrew is a senior but is also a scholar. The psalmist, however, understood that sometimes with a decrease in energy and ability, those who are aging need help and feel their independence compromised. When they are old, we must be strong for them and support them. We cannot cast them off.
Ben Sira has a more utilitarian view, advising the following: “Dishonor not the old; we shall all be numbered among them.” Beware of dishonoring the old because it will eventually hurt you. We are all aging, every day. If we create a culture that loves youth and does not revere the aged then we will be victims of such a society when our turn comes. Ben Sira is a collection of wisdom likely written by Yeshua ben Sira around 180 BCE that was never included in the biblical canon but makes episodic appearances in the Talmud and other rabbinic literature. It is full of wise sayings; perhaps Ben Sira was himself an old man when he wrote it since another of his famous sayings is also about this time of life: “Much experience is the crown of the aged.”
When you are deeply immersed in work, it is hard to ever imagine a time when you will retire. For many, the thought or reality of it can be depressing and frightening. Yet the average age of retirement is 62 in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The average time in retirement is 18 years. The first number has been shrinking over the century, and the second number has been growing as people live longer. This means that many people can spend many more years pursuing other activities. But many people today are retiring later and later because they do not have the financial savings to stop, even if their health demands it. The statistics are likely to change.
The Pope’s retirement has made me think about a Jewish approach to retirement. We probably should make a blessing upon retiring for being able to reach the stage of life when working takes second fiddle to living. We are grateful for the blessing of having worked and contributed to society and for the blessing that we have reached the age of retirement and can work in other creative ways.
The first chapter of Genesis mandates that we work for six days and rest on the seventh. Work is regarded as an important way we find purpose and meaning in the world. But perhaps we can also stretch this view of the week into the lifespan. We work and work and work and then we must rest so that our senior years become, in effect, a form of Shabbat. Shabbat is not a time when we do nothing. It is a time when we reflect on all that we have created and all that God has created for us. It is a time of sleeping and eating and singing and spending time with the people who matter most. It is a time to count blessings and savor and sanctify time rather than rush through it.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.