The Working Life
In my family, we are not the retiring type—although we do tend toward shyness. What I mean is that we don’t have a family tradition of retiring from professional work. We tend to work until we can’t. When I noticed that Parashat Beha-alotekha features an early appearance of the idea of semiretirement, I wondered about current work and retirement trends in the United States. Here is what I learned:
[T]raditional one-time, permanent exits from the labor force continue to be the exception rather than the rule, and . . . the retirement patterns of the Early Boomers, those on the cusp of retirement during the recent Great Recession, appear to be diverging from those of earlier cohorts. The Early Boomer women, in particular, were more likely than those in previous cohorts . . . to move to a bridge job prior to exiting the labor force completely, and both Early Boomer men and women were more likely to leave their career jobs involuntarily, with layoffs being a key factor.1
Perhaps the earliest recorded “bridge job” is that of the 50-year-old Levite in Parashat Beha-alotekha. From the age of 25 through 50, a Levite is in the active phase of his (at the time, this would only apply to men) career. He participates inavodat ohel mo’ed, the service of the Tent of Meeting (Num. 8:25). At 50 years of age, he must sheret et ehav, or attend to his brothers (Num. 8:26). He may no longer lift and carry the heavy sacred objects of the Tabernacle, a physically demanding and spiritually dangerous job. Instead, he stands guard over the Sanctuary. Avodah is only for Levites in their prime; sherut is for Levites who are semiretired.
The Levite who never retires, Moses, performs a kind of work for which the rules about retirement are especially unclear: political leadership. He is an unusually gifted leader, which he demonstrates in Beha-alotekha (Num. 11:26–30). When the Israelites Eldad and Medad begin prophesying to the people of Israel, Joshua, Moses’s protégé and eventual successor, eagerly seeks to have them detained for defying Moses’s authority. But Moses declines to have them stopped or censored in any way, saying, “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put his spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29).
Joshua, the na‘ar (youth; Num. 11:27), the rising young leader from the tribe of Ephraim, feels any slight to his master more acutely than Moses does. But Moses is that rare thing, a leader secure enough in his own ego to share power.
Joshua has missed something fundamental about Moses. Moses’s leadership arises from his compassion, his outrage about oppression, and, most of all, from his deep identification with his people. These qualities were first provoked to action by the sight of an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave (Exod. 2:11–15). In the brief Eldad-Medad episode, Joshua’s loyalty to Moses, and his lack of Moses’s exceptionally generous wisdom, are expressed simultaneously.
Moses’s magnanimity toward Eldad and Medad is a generosity not required by his role as a Levite. It comes from his spiritual greatness, forged over years of leading his people and attending to God. God’s high regard for Moses is stated in a forceful speech at the end of this week’s parashah, when God rebukes Moses’s older siblings, Miriam and Aaron, for gossiping against their younger brother. In this instance, God calls Moses ‘avdi Mosheh (My servant Moses) twice, using the term for the active Levite:
Hear these My words: When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make myself known to him in a vision, I speak to him in a dream. Lo khen ‘avdi Mosheh, Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord. How then did you not become terrified from speaking against ‘avdi Mosheh, My servant Moses?! (Num. 12:6–8)
Why is God so outraged on Moses’s behalf? Miriam and Aaron are older Levite siblings, and seasoned leaders in their own right. By speaking ill of Moses, they have failed to be mesharet et ehav, to be attendants to their tribal brother, who is, in fact, their actual brother. It is so much easier to serve a brother who is a social construct than a familial relative.
Unlike Miriam and Aaron, for most of his life, Joshua succeeds at being mesharet Mosheh, as noted in our parashah, and in the opening words of the book of Joshua: “And it came to pass, after the death of Moses, ‘eved Adonai, servant of God, that Adonai said to Joshua, son of Nun, mesharet Mosheh [Moses’s attendant] . . . ” (Josh. 1:1).
Joshua is still mesharet Mosheh after Moses has died, and Moses is still ‘eved Adonai. Joshua only acquires the name ‘eved Adonai upon his death (Josh. 24:29). Joshua begins life as a mesharet and ends it as an ‘eved, the reverse of the Levitical path. He progresses from peripheral engagement in sacred work to more intimate connection to God.
Moses is always ‘eved Adonai, always held near by God. He does not show change in this regard in the manner of most Levites. During his lifetime, Moses knew no retirement age, and possessed a spiritual gift that cannot be captured in a job description, not even that of a Levite. Moses was very unusual. What can most people learn from him, in regard to work?
We can think about the name we earn in the workplace, and about the quality and purpose of our work itself, whether we do it full-time, part-time, or in semiretirement. We can see our work as making a contribution to the world, and consider how we are of service. And we can look for occasions to practice generosity of spirit in our work, which is to say, in our lives.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.
1Cahill, Kevin E., Michael D. Giandrea, and Joseph F. Quinn, “Retirement Patterns and the Macroeconomy, 1992–2010: The Prevalence and Determinants of Bridge Jobs, Phased Retirement, and Reentry Among Three Recent Cohorts of Older Americans,” The Gerontologist (Oxford University Press on behalf of the Gerontological Society of America), 2013.