Bearing Fruit Even In Old Age

The Torah mentions the ages of Moses and Aaron to teach us that age is a source of pride and that by honoring the elderly we bring richness to our own lives.

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Rabbi ibn Ezra noticed a distinction in the functions of these brothers and all subsequent Jewish prophets. Only Moses and Aaron transmitted new teaching to the Jewish people, and their teachings became our portal to eternal life and higher purpose. All the other prophets, as great as they indubitably were, worked to remind us of the ethical and spiritual core of the Mosaic revelation.

While Rabbi ibn Ezra's insight is itself remarkable, for our purposes what stands out is his evaluation of age. He sees the statement of Moses and Aaron's old age as highly complimentary. Not only do they not hide their age, but it is a source of pride. 

In the words of the Talmud, "at  80--the age of strength." What is the strength of 80 years? Surely a teenager is stronger physically, and a child can run farther and packs more energy! The acumen of a 40-year old is more quick and deft, and a 60-year old is more keen to the ways of the world.

The strength of 80 is the wisdom that comes from experience and completion. Having run much of the course of life, having seen the follies and passions of the human heart rise and subside, having seen their own and their friends' dreams, limitations and achievements, an adult of 80 years is finally able to look at the human condition with compassion and some skepticism. At 80 years of age, we need no longer serve either passion or ambition.

Finally, at 80, we can review our life, taking stock of how those who cared for us as children paved our paths through life, for good or for ill. The Talmud relates that Rabbi Hanina used to say that one was regarded as healthy "as long as one is able to stand on one foot and put on and take off one's shoes." It was said that Rabbi Hanina was able to do so at the age of 80. He remarked that "the warm bath and oil with which my parents anointed me in my youth have stood me in good stead in my old age."

In our youth, each one of us was cared for by someone older. As links in the chain of the generations, we also care for others who depend on us to transmit what they need to establish lives of purpose, accomplishment and belonging.  Judaism is the warm water, and Torah the oil with which to anoint our children and ourselves, the bath to keep away the chill. Then, even in old age, we will flourish like a cedar. Planted in the courtyards of our God, we shall bear fruit, even in old age.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.