The Sedra begins with Moshe being told to take censuses of the Kohathite, Gershonite and Merarite families of Leviim. Having done that, each family is told what tasks they had to perform in relation to the Mishkan, along with a phrase that attracted my attention. In each family, only the men between the ages of thirty and fifty were required to serve (Bamidbar 4:20). That didn’t seem like a very long career.
In Pirkei Avot it says [Judah ben Tema] used to say “At five years of age the study of scripture begins; ten for Mishnah, thirteen for the obligation of the commandments; fifteen for the study of Talmud; eighteen for marriage; twenty for seeking a livelihood; thirty for full strength; forty for understanding; fifty for giving counsel; sixty for old age…eighty for exceptional strength…at a hundred, one is as if he were dead… (5:24) Comparing the two got me thinking. In our early years we are learning. We then are finding our way in the world but surely we can be useful for more than twenty years and there is no need to be cast aside at age fifty to become more and more decrepit.
In Bechukotai we have a third way of looking at a man’s value. “When any party explicitly vows to Hashem the equivalent for a human being the following scale shall apply: If it is a man from twenty to sixty years of age, the equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by sanctuary weight (Vayikra 27:2-3).
This third methodology suggests that the fifty year old’s counsel could be used to provide consulting services which are just as valuable as doing the task itself – perhaps it is the first reference to leaving full time employment and going for a ‘portfolio career’.
Do we need to be bound by this?
In Parshat Vayera we are told that Moshe was eighty and Aaron was eighty three when they went before Pharoah (Shemot 7:7) and that was the beginning of their leadership.
Irish-born artist Francis Bacon said “I will never be an old man. To me old age is always 15 years older than I am”.
May we all live to 120 and continue to contribute in some way – beyond Judah ben Tema’s wildest dreams.