Religious : : Thoughts from the Rabbi

Let me ask a serious question: At what age do we become officially old? I used to think that Middle Age was two years older than whatever age I was. Now I know better: Middle Age is when your middle shows your age. So when exactly does old age begin? There are a number of answers to this question. When Social Security was created in the 1930s, they defined old age as 65. They got that number 65 from Germany, where Chancellor Bismarck declared 65 to be the age when Prussian military Generals were forced to retire.

Although Germany originally set the national retirement age at 70, by 1916, Germany lowered its standard retirement to age 65. In the U.S., before Social Security was enacted, a Committee on Economic Security was convened to iron out the details – including the retirement age. The architects of Social Security arbitrarily selected 65 as the age of benefit entitlement. There was no scientific, social or gerontological basis for the selection. It was the general consensus that 65 was the most acceptable age. Members of the Committee thought 60 was too low and 70 too high. What private pensions were in force at the time generally used age 65, as did the Railroad Retirement System. So that’s it. A group of guys (and one lady) simply pulled a number from out of theirÖ hats.

Yet we see that number is surely not accurate today. We know many people who are still working after they reach the age of 65. We know many people who begin new careers after they retire at sixty five. So that’s no longer the correct definition of when old age begins.

Some people say 70 is the beginning of old age, and they may be right. Our biblical King David lived to be 70 and at the end of his life he was weak and feeble and needed constant care. Our biblical Psalmist says: the days of a person’s life are 70 – only the strong live beyond 70. Yet, you & I know lots of people who are 70, who still work, or still travel, still are active, who live life to the fullest, who go at life full speed ahead. So what’s the correct definition of when old age begins?

The definition might have something to do with our physical condition. When our body is weak, we can’t undertake new and difficult challenges. Maybe there is a deeper definition of ‘old’ – if we say “Been there-done that” too often. If we desire no more challenges, and if we only want to rest, and wait to die. Or do we have goals to accomplish, new vistas we still want to conquer?

That’s the difference between those of us who are old and those who are not. As long as we still have a goal in front of us, as long as we still have a task to do, as long as we still have a vision of what we want to accomplish-we are not old.

When we become jaded, when we feel we’ve done it all – seen it all, when we are bored and blase, then we are old, regardless of the date of our birth.

We can ask our self the question: Am I old – or not? The answer depends on whether, when you’re asked to volunteer for a shul project or Sisterhood or Men’s Club project or to consider a new idea or to take on a new responsibility, whether you say: I’m too old, choose someone else, or whether you say: I’m ready to meet this challenge, I can do it.

In a very real sense we decide for ourselves how old we are. It’s true – sometimes our body determines what we can do and what we can’t do. It’s also true – sometimes our soul determines what we can do and what we can’t do. The day we have no desire to do something we’ve never done before, the day we’re unwilling to consider a new idea, the day when we have no interest in changing the way things are – that’s the day – we become an old person, no matter what the calendar says.

So if someone ever asks us: “If we are old?” we should tell them: “No I’m not, there’s much too much to do, so I don’t have time to be old yet.”

B’vrachot, blessings,
Rabbi Dennis