At eighty, the age of strength

By Rabbi Greg Alexander

My mom made her crossing to Olam haBa (the next world) in the month of Av. At the shiva prayers, Rabbi Sa’ar from Bet Emanuel in Joburg taught the following Mishnah:

“At five years of age, the study of Scripture; at ten, the study of Mishnah; at thirteen, subject to the commandments; at fifteen, the study of Talmud; at eighteen, the bridal canopy; at twenty, for pursuit [of livelihood]; at thirty, the peak of strength; at forty, wisdom; at fifty, able to give counsel; at sixty, old age; at seventy, fullness of years; at eighty, the age of strength; at ninety, a bent body; at one hundred, as good as dead and gone completely out of the world.” (Pirkei Avot 5:21)

We can spend many hours looking at each age, and let’s be clear that while you might resonate or disagree with some or all of the ages/stages, they are really guidelines, not fixed in stone. For today, let’s start with 60, the age that the Mishnah says ‘old age’ begins. It’s interesting that still today 2000 years after this was written, 65 is considered the suitable age for retirement. But, as we live longer, more and more people are working way beyond that age, into their eighties and even nineties, and why not? 

70 and 80 refer to the verse in Psalm 90, “The span of our life is seventy years, or — given strength — eighty years.” This is the origin of the custom of a second b-mitzvah. Since a full life is 70, the clock goes back to zero and at the age of 83 you are ready to be called up to the Torah again. I have been privileged to officiate at several of these meaningful milestones and each one stands out as a magnificent celebration of strength, family and Torah.

“At ninety, a bent body” – in the time of the Mishnah it would have been very unusual for someone to live into their nineties, and if they did, they were unlikely to be in perfect health. That is not the case today, when it’s hardly breaking news for a nonagenarian to be driving themselves to work. And there are many great models in our Torah — take Sarah, who was 90 when she gave birth to Isaac, and Abraham who was 100. Moses was 80 when G-d sent him to deliver the Israelites out of Egypt and launched him on a 40-year career of Jewish leadership, and Noah was 600 when he built the ark.

And 100? Well besides your letter from the King, you are in another world, as most of your peers have predeceased you. At that stage you are forging new frontiers, going where not many have gone before. My grandfather’s mother, Annie Baker z”l, lived to 101 and so there are good genes in my family for longevity. 

But let’s go back to “at eighty, the age of strength”. My mom lived to 82, and the week before she went into hospital she was on her phone, managing family affairs, committees she served on, charities she organised and people she helped. Anyone who knew her would not suggest that this octogenarian was anything but “strong”.

People say that ageing is not for sissies — and it is true — but every decade brings with it new learning and opening of gates. It is not complaining about what one can no longer do, but seeing the opportunities of what one can. If there is anything clear that Judaism is wanting us to remember, it’s that ageing isn’t about the condition of our body. It’s the state of your mind-body-soul that will dictate the health of your elder years. 

Yes, there will be loss, and life is nothing if not challenging — hard even. But there is so much good around, so many opportunities for blessings. What we have to do is see them, count them, speak them. Like our own Tanakh that says, “Gray hair is a crown of glory” (Proverbs 16:31). Or the 92-year-old who was asked, “did you have a happy childhood?” to which she replied, “so far, yes.” 

Temple Israel

• Published in the October 2022 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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