Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they made their demand on Pharaoh. (Exodus 7:7)Moses and Aaron got a late start on the careers and endeavors that made the most enduring difference to the Jewish people and the world. They are not alone: Abraham was 70 when God called him from Ur of the Chaldees to leave everything and everyone he knew and start anew so that he would be the progenitor of the Jewish People. Rabbi Akiba was 40 when he began to learn the alphabet and how to read, and he systematized and shaped halakhic methodology and scriptural interpretation. If Abraham is the father of the Jewish People, Akiba is the father of Rabbinic Judaism.
Pirke Avot 5:23 provides a lifecycle schedule:
At five, one studies Tanakh. At ten, Mishnah. At 13, the mitzvot. At 15, Talmud. At 18, marriage. At 20, pursuit of a livelihood. At 30, the peak of strength. At 40, understanding. At 50, advisor. At 60, old age. At 70, the hoary head. At 80, strength. At 90, a bent back. At 100, it is as if one is already dead and passed out of this world.If we examine various commentaries on this passage in Pirke Avot, we find that some read koach at 80 (strength at 80) as a sincere expression, but many read it as a sardonic comment or a euphemism for weakness. But Torah suggests – through the model of Moses – that 80, and indeed any advanced age, can be a time of remarkable capacity and strength. We have all known elders who retained their vitality because they had not only attained wisdom through learning and life’s experiences, but chose to invest in others and thereby found great purpose to their latter years.
Sadly, there are many elders in our midst who do not feel that their lives have continuing meaning and value. Perhaps there is more we can do to integrate such people into the life of the community, pairing them with children who have no local grandparents so they can share their stories, wisdom, recipes, and love.
There is a message in this for each of us, as well. Age is, in large measure, attitude. We can be 80 with strength, or 80 with “strength.”
What are you going to do next with your life?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman