Past Their Prime: Parashat B’ha`a lot’kha

Parashat B’ha`a lot’kha
Numbers 8:1-12:16

When I was much younger, I occasionally went to the opera to hear singers I admired. On my limited budget, I bought the cheapest “Standing Room” tickets. One evening I went to hear a renowned tenor sing the male lead in Verdi’s Aida. The tenor had been singing for many years and was in the twilight of his career. I wanted to catch him before he retired. His great aria, “Celeste Aida,” comes right at the beginning of the opera and we greeted the opening music with anticipation. But we were sorely disappointed when the tenor was unable to sing the high B-flat at the end of his aria on pitch. Everyone’s heart sank. But even more memorable to me than the great singer’s failure was a remark made at intermission by one of the “mavens” up in the cheap-seat gallery. Acknowledging everyone’s deflated spirits at the fall of this singing legend, he instructed us, “It is always better to hear a singer past his prime than to hear a singer who never had a prime.” If the aged singer was no longer able to muster the energy needed to hit that high note, he was, nevertheless, able to sing with an intelligence and wisdom gained from years of artistry and even from years of coping with his failing powers.

Our Torah portion, among many topics, deals with the age-limits imposed on the Levites when they served in the sanctuary. They began their training at age 25 and entered full service at age thirty. They had mandatory retirement at age 50. “And from age 50 years he shall return from the work force and not serve anymore. He shall help his brothers in the Tent of Meeting to keep its guard, but he shall not serve in worship.” (Num. 8:25-26) All commentators understand that this rule recognized that the Levites were supposed to do heavy lifting and carrying. So they were released from such hard labor after 20 years. But opinions are divided about whether they were eligible to continue singing. Was one area of service tied to the other? Was the loss of pleasantness in the voice a concern?

Furthermore, it is unclear what the retired Levite was supposed to do after age 50. Rashi reads the verse, “He shall help et his brothers (- v’sheret et ehav)” to mean “he shall help along with his brothers.” The Hebrew word “et” is read to mean “along with.” So the aged Levite can still do less heavy work, including singing. But others (see Bekhor Shor) read the “et” as simply an indicative – pointing to the object of the verb. Thus, the phrase means – “he shall give help to his brothers.” His brothers keep working and he cannot join with them, but he must find ways to be of assistance.

The questions raised by this text are many. One question often asked in this era of retiring baby-boomers is – what comes next after retirement? Is some continuation to be expected or should the retiree seek to find other avenues for their accumulated expertise? Will avenues exist for the retiree to move into a more consultative role after giving up their own job? What is clear to the Torah is that some kind of service should remain a part of the aged Levite’s life.

But the giving must come from both directions. The society surrounding the retiree must seek to maintain a sense of respect for people, for their efforts and for their experience. We should make sure to respect the hard, physical work done by people and recognize that we must give them an honorable way out of their toil as they get older. Are they paid enough to be able to retire? Is their health and well-being assured? Will they be able to maintain their self-esteem? And for those engaged in other kinds of work, will we be able to appreciate the gifts of those who “sing even when they are past their prime”?

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Greenstein

Image, a collage by John Lasiter, from two source images:
Old man” by Theodor Hensolt, licensed under CC BY 2.0
The Height of Youth’s Ascent” by Brandon Warren, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein.

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One thought on “Past Their Prime: Parashat B’ha`a lot’kha

  1. This touches both of us. I’m still teaching way too many hours per week. There is literally no one around here to replace me, לעניות דעתי, and I can use the money. Even more importantly, I still love teaching, after 64 years, and it gives my life purpose. I can even hit a high note from time to time. שבת שלום

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