For the week of June 13, 2009 / 21 Sivan 5769
Torah: Bemidbar / Numbers 8:1 - 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 - 4:7 (English 2:10 - 4:7)
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties." (Bemidbar / Numbers 8:23-26; ESV)
To date, the most difficult birthday I have ever faced was when I turned fifty a couple of years ago. I always thought of myself as not caring about getting older. Others would bemoan "getting old" at their thirtieth or fortieth birthdays, while I took pride in how I couldn't care less about such superficial matters as age - that is until I approached fifty. There was something about that number that sounded very old to me. I think it is because I was the youngest in my family and always saw my parents, especially my father as old. Even though he was in his forties when I was born, I don't remember him as being any younger than fifty. Fifty to me has always put people in their senior years.
But what's wrong with getting older? I am aware of common fears such as failing health and death, but for me I struggle with a sense of running out of time in the fulfillment of whatever my life is about. My guess is that some of you completely understand what I am talking about, while the rest of you think I am being silly. I thought when people felt this way at twenty, thirty, or forty that they were being silly. It wasn't until I reached fifty that I understood. Maybe you will never feel this way, but don't be surprised if you do one day.
I am encouraged (and corrected) by the Bible's view of aging. Apart from how it clearly honors the elderly (a group that I still don't see myself as a part of regardless of how old I think fifty is), the Scriptures never see people as done with their lives until they are dead - and even then we are not truly done. More than one key Bible character didn't begin to fulfill their calling until well past their fiftieth birthday.
This week's Torah portion illustrates this. The age of fifty was when the Levites were to "withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more." It isn't clear as to why fifty was the age for this, but it was. Yet note that this was not a regulation regarding retirement, but rather a necessary shift in their duties. At fifty they were no longer to perform the other duties of a Levite, but instead they were to "minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard." After performing the other Levitical duties for twenty-five years they were to move into a protective role.
In an age such as ours where youth is so greatly valued, I have wondered what role older people are called to play. The common retirement model of "having worked for forty years, now I can sit back and enjoy life" is disappearing. What it is being replaced with is a pressure for older people to compete with younger folks in order to keep their jobs. Our failure to recognize the special call of God on older people is a recipe for disaster.
As the Levites did, so older people need to move into protective roles. Becoming a supervisor in a company or an elder in a congregation, to name a couple of examples, are not simply rewards for working hard for a number of years. They are special roles given to those who through years of life experience should be best equipped to help guide the younger and less experienced members of our communities. As we get older, we should be growing in wisdom so that we can effectively stand on guard on behalf of those whom we serve.
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