February 22, 2020

Age 70 Is No Time to Slow Down

In “As You Like It,” Shakespeare has Jaques recite a famous monologue on the ages of man: a mewling, puking infant, whining schoolboy, amorous lover, devoted soldier, wise judge, second childhood, and then death.

How very different from our own tradition’s listing of the ages of man and the stages of life in the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot, (Ethics of the Fathers):

“At 5, the study of Torah.
At 10, the study of Mishnah.
At 13, subject to the commandments.
At 15, the study of the Talmud.
At 18, marriage.
At 20, pursuit of a career.
At 30, peak of achievement.
At 40, wisdom.
At 50, able to give counsel.
At 60, becoming an elder.
At 70, the fullness of years.
At 80, special strength.
At 90, a bent back.
At 100, gone from the affairs of this world.”

Our sages saw life as revolving around study, spiritual awareness and meaningfulness. Not for us is the quip of an anonymous wit who described life as spills, drills, thrills, pills, ills and wills.

Today, I turn 70. It’s a great blessing to reach 70.

One can look back on a long span of life’s joy and achievements. Still, it’s hard for me to believe.

I don’t feel old.

I am grateful to be healthy, to have energy and passion for both my family and my work.

The Talmud relates that during the period following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the sages of Yavneh wished to appoint Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah as head of their academy. A brilliant scholar, respected and beloved by his colleagues, he had one shortcoming: He was too young. Perhaps he was thought not to have enough experience of the world. Perhaps it was considered inappropriate for a mere youth of 17 to sit as head of the venerable rabbinic sages of Yavneh.

So the Talmud relates that a miracle happened. One morning, the rabbi awoke to find that his hair and his beard had turned a snowy white. He now looked like an elder. When his colleagues saw him with his hoary head, they felt comfortable asking him to become the head of the academy.

Not for us is the quip of an anonymous wit who described life as spills, drills, thrills, pills, ills and wills.

What a great combination — to be both young and old at the same time.

The secret of being young and old simultaneously is maintaining hope, looking ahead, openness to new ideas, and overcoming gloom and failure by focusing on the brightness on the horizon.

Someone once told me that you don’t stop laughing when you get old. You get old when you stop laughing.

I do not have words sufficient to express my joy and pride in my six children and their spouses. They have made my life so worthwhile and satisfying. Parenting them is the best thing I have done in my life. Their children are the lights of my life. As savta to 18 wonderful grandchildren, each so different and so precious, I know why we have the proverb that says “grandchildren are the crown to the aged.”

I would like to be the opposite of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah. I am a woman of 70 (without gray hair or a beard) and yet, with the help of the Almighty as I enter this new stage of life, the time of fullness of years, I hope to retain my sense of curiosity, enthusiasm, optimism and spirit.

I don’t wish my life and the things I value to contract, but rather to take on new dimensions all the rest of my days.

Sydney Alderman Perry, now 72, retired in June 2016 as executive director of the Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, Conn. In February, she was named interim executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts.

A version of this story appeared on the Jewish Federation of Greater New York’s website in 2015.