After I retired from a London pulpit six years ago, it felt as if I’d walked off a cliff.
The new me wasn’t vitally participating in the lives of my congregants of all ages, nor was I bringing Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious communities together in friendship and peace, as the rabbi me had done for years. Instead I had become just another retired rabbi living in a condo development on a golf course in Florida. My meaningful life had been downgraded to the quintessential stereotype of a Jewish aging joke.
Adding to my bottomless sense of loss was the blunt reality of ageism. As I’d aged in the workforce, co-workers had “innocently” inquired about my retirement plans. Upon retirement I sought out volunteer opportunities where my expertise might be valued, only to discover that the majority of my many phone calls would not be returned. Once I wasn’t in a vocational position of authority, my potential contributions were largely unvalued.
Several friends and relatives encouraged me to “get over it.” Stop trying to do something substantive, they advised. “Take up golf.”
But I struggled. It was hard to accept that what always endowed my life with significance could no longer exist, just because I’d entered the ranks of the aged.
Indeed, Jewish tradition teaches us that senior lives should command great respect. In this week’s Torah portion (Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:32) we read: “You shall rise up before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God. I am Adonai.”
There are modern exhortations too. When I was riding the Ma-alit, the funicular subway in Haifa, at the young age of 19, I spotted a sign in Hebrew over a bank of seats: “Mipnay Sayva Takum”— in King James English, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary-head.” What a difference in import from “Give up your seat for the elderly,” the plain-English equivalent! This message forever changed how I treated older adults through the years, until I became a hoary-head too.
My respect for elders actually began with my Grandma Ida. The eldest child of poor immigrants, she had to abandon formal education after 8th grade to work full-time to help support her family. Decades later though, after she’d stopped working and until she died at age 97, she never stopped learning—languages, science, math, whatever her children and grandchildren were studying. One of her favorite Russian proverbs was Yaitzee Kooree Utchit, “The egg teaches the chicken.”
As a youngster, I was always learning how to live life from her. As a senior, I realized, I had just as much to learn from her now.
Meanwhile, I began witnessing elderly friends and neighbors make vital contributions to society. One friend, an 85-year-old retired engineer, joyfully wakes up before sunrise most weekday mornings to work as a math or science substitute teacher in local high schools. A woman contemporary of ours leads a cancer charity. A 102-year-old neighbor is a receptionist in the county sheriff’s office, and also carves out time to work on his golf game and enjoy his marriage and many friends.
Finally, I had my proof: Tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” is not age-limited. Today’s seniors do have to work harder to find their tikkun olam opportunities, but bountiful opportunities are there to be discovered. In time, my wife Suellen and I found the right tikkun olam initiative for us; activism in the Florida Democratic Party, to make our state, nation, and world a better place.
We’ve also come to realize some advantages of aging: Seniors have time and space to love and teach more fully. There’s inestimable wealth in deepening an already matured marriage, pursuing friendships, nurturing grandchildren. The psychologist Erik Erikson coined the term “generativity” to describe this seventh and final stage in personality development. Generativity ascends during adulthood as we struggle against personal stagnation. Finally, in large part out of optimism about humanity, mature adults evidence generativity by mentoring the next generation.
In Jewish tradition, Pirke Avot (4:26) compares learning from the old to eating ripe grapes and drinking aged wine. Song of Songs Rabbah (1:1) tells the story of Honi the Circle Maker’s encounter with an elderly man planting a carob tree alongside the road. Honi asks him, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” he replies, to which Honi queries, “Do you think you will live another seventy years, to enjoy the carob fruit?” The man answers: “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I plant fruit trees for my children and grandchildren.”
We seniors can embody generativity and make these mitzvot manifest!
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once quipped that the secret of the bond between grandparents and grandchildren lies in their common enemy. An elderly rabbi friend offers his own midrash on Mead’s teaching: the real common enemy is amnesia. Grandchildren need grandparents to keep from forgetting the past. Grandparents need grandchildren to keep from forgetting the future.
For all these reasons, I believe it is time for us seniors of the world to unite in a “Senior Lives Matter” movement. Its primary mission would not be to fight external injustices, akin to the “Black Lives Matter” movement’s work to identify and prevent injustices toward African-Americans. For older adults, much of the underlying obstruction lies within ourselves—seniors who, like the man I once was, undervalue their own potentially profound importance to family, friends, and society.
It is time for us seniors to redraw the boundaries of the word “retired.” It solely means no longer drawing a paycheck for what one does; it never needs to mean “retired” from life.
Most importantly, let us expand our imaginations and actions to love more, give more and live more. Proverbs 16:31 tells us, “The hoary head is a glorious crown, achieved by a righteous life.” Let us wear our glorious crowns of hoary old age with joy.
About the author: Rabbi Mark L. Winer is President of the Florida Democratic Party Caucus of American Jews and President of FAITH: the Foundation to Advance Interfaith Trust and Harmony. He served as a full-time synagogue rabbi for thirty years in the New York area and thirteen years in London, England. He and his wife Suellen live in Boca Raton, Florida.
The above formerly appeared as #323 in our Torah from Around the World series.