Two weeks ago, I reflected on the fact that according to the Biblical model, in approaching age 50, I would soon be exempt from military service. This week, in reading Parshat Beha’alotekha, I realized that if I had been born a Levite in those days, I’d also be on the verge of retirement. “But at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more” (Numbers 8:25)
The term tzeva ha’avodah is a fascinating one. “Work force” is an accurate translation, because the word tzeva has military connotations. In fact, the prevailing historical analysis suggests that the initial pensions were offered by the Roman empire to its soldiers, if they toughed it out (and survived) long enough In researching the history of retirement, one learns that the concept was quite rare in antiquity. Given the much shorter life expectancy rates then as compared to modernity, people were far more likely to work until they died. It wasn’t until the 19th century that retirement became a live option for the rest of the work force.
So was the Torah so far ahead of the curve in introducing a retirement age for Levites? And if so, would we consider this a gift to them? Or is it an imposition of a mandatory retirement age that assumes that once they hit 50, Levites become useless? Given that the name of their tribe, Levi, is related to the Hebrew word for sacred accompaniment, is this not an insult, a denial of the essence of Levite-ness? In other words, is “velo ya’avod ‘od–shall serve no more” a blessing or a curse?
On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at Rashi’s comment on the verse, and ponder the question of the value of work in providing human beings with dignity.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,