The Retiring Kind: Beha’alotkha 2017

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: If money were not an object, what would be the ideal age in which to retire from your profession? Other than salary, what kind of value is there in working past that ideal age?

Our Torah portion this week spells out a specific time for the kohanim, the ancient Israelite priests, to stop working:

The Pitch: “This is the rule for the Levites. From 25 years of age up until they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of 50 they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more. They may assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting by standing guard, but they shall perform no labor. Thus you shall deal with the Levites in regard to their duties.” – Numbers 8:24-26

Swing #1: “The meaning of this [last] verse is ambiguous. Does it mean to say that after the age of fifty Levites would no longer perform maintenance functions, but only “assist” in other ways, performing less demanding duties? To put the question another way: does verse 26 link up directly with the preceding statements in verses 24-25, or does it recapitulate the overall characterization of the status of the Levites, as ‘serving’ but not officiating? The former alternative is preferable, because verses 23-26 appear to be a separate statement.” – Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20

Swing #2: “One verse says: From twenty and five years old and upward; and another verse says: From thirty years old and upward. Now one cannot accept the age of thirty because of the verse which mentions twenty-five, and one cannot accept the age of twenty-five because of the verse which mentions thirty. How are these verses to be reconciled? Thus: at the age of twenty-five [the Levite enters the service] for training, and at the age of thirty he performs service. Hence the dictum: If a student does not see a sign of blessing [progress] in his studies after five years, he never will. R. Jose says, [After] three years, for it is written: That they be trained three years. And that they be taught the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans. And the other, [how does he explain these latter verses]? — He would say that the Chaldean language is an exception, for It is easy [to master]. And the other, [R. Jose]? — He would say that the Temple service is an exception, for its rules are difficult.” – BT Hullin 24a

Swing #3: “[Yehudah ben Teima] used to say … Twenty [is the age] for pursuit, thirty [is the age] for [full] strength, forty [is the age] for understanding, fifty [is the age] for [giving] counsel …” – Pirkei Avot 5:21

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to believe that 50 is the appropriate age for a kohen to retire from priestly responsibilities? Knowing what you know about the responsibilities of the ancient priests, do you agree that it is a fitting age? What would you have said to a priest over the age of 50 who still wanted to serve in that capacity? How do we best deal with individuals who wish to work past the time in which they are productive? How would you like to be dealt with if you were to work past the time in which retirement would be appropriate?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We are more than halfway to our goal of dedicating our new mahzorim (High Holy Day prayer books) before Rosh Hashanah! But there are still opportunities to do so. Help be a part of a new era of celebrating our most sacred days by putting the names of loved ones in a book that will add meaning to our High Holy Day experiences.

The Big Inning at the End: Albert Pujols hit his 600th career home run this past week, a feat that largely escaped the notice of sports fans. I hope that, even belatedly, we can mark this milestone for a person who has embodied class both on and off the field, especially given his magnificent charitable work for children with special needs.

Shabbat Shalom!