How We Strengthen Each Other

Behukkotai By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 17, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary | Gender

From the messianic vision of a society where divine sovereignty preserves economic equality for all, we descend to the mundane subject of funding the sanctuary. The book of Leviticus ends where it began, with the Tabernacle as a sacred institution that needs to be maintained annually. It is a subject that arouses my sympathy. I can readily testify that the holy lacks the capacity to sustain itself. It depends on the commitment and generosity of many in society who appreciate its unique value.

Accordingly, Leviticus closes prosaically with a chapter devoted to voluntary gifts that people might make to the Tabernacle. What impresses me no end is that these gifts are unsolicited. The Tabernacle does not need a large staff of fundraisers. The money flows in steadily and spontaneously from people who seek to grace their lives with a touch of the holy. The high priest need not be the chief development officer!

We often give our charitable gifts in multiples of 18, the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word Hai, which means “being alive.” The number implies an unspoken prayer for life, a bit of ourselves in return for a little more time. This is also the principle of giving set forth in the final chapter of Leviticus. People are assigned financial equivalents: a man between the ages of 20 to 60 is worth a sum of 50 shekels, a woman of the same age, 30 shekels. Over 60 years of age, the value of a man drops to 15 shekels, that of a woman to 10. Pledges to the Tabernacle were made by an individual in terms of this scale: “When anyone explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply… (Leviticus 27:2).” The gift is literally an act of self–sacrifice, except that the system of financial equivalents allows for substitution. We court God’s favor by offering symbolically what we treasure most, ourselves.

I know what will immediately catch your attention is that the value placed on men exceeds that of women, much like the gender disparity in pay scale for the same work in our own day. But that is not the point on which I want to dwell. There is nothing surprising about the differential in antiquity where productivity was largely a function of raw strength. What is noteworthy is the arresting fact that in old age, the value assigned to women declines more slowly than that of men. After the age of 60, a woman’s worth goes down to a third of its original value (from 30 to 10 shekels), a man’s to less than a third (from 50 to 15). In other words, the Torah deems advancing age to take a slightly smaller toll on women than on men. Centuries later the Talmud was prompted to confirm the insight with an acerbic adage: “A grandfather at home is a snare, a grandmother is a treasure.”

While modern civilization has extended human life beyond belief, the basic pattern of aging remains conspicuously unchanged. If anything, increased longevity has exacerbated the differences. One of the wisest books that I have ever read on the subject is Number Our Days by Barbara Myerhoff. The title echoes the verse from Psalms (90:11), “Teach us to number our days rightly, that we obtain a wise heart,” and does full justice to her quest to fathom how the elderly face the task of growing old. A triumph of anthropology and empathy, the book is a vibrantly masterful study, rendered more poignant still by the premature death from cancer by its gifted author not long after its completion.

The objects of her loving scrutiny are the elderly members of a shabby Jewish center, no larger than one hall, in the beach community of Venice, California. They are all immigrants from Eastern Europe, formed in childhood by the vocabulary and values of the shtetl, and the parents of upwardly mobile children just a bit too busy and far away to pay them much attention. The inescapable conclusion of her research is the extraordinary success of the women in filling their narrow and lonely lives with enough meaning to master the process of aging. Myerhoff writes in summary: “As a group, the men seemed more worn out and demoralized than the women…. Most of the men were quieter, vaguer, more sad than angry compared with the vitality and assertiveness of the women…. Men were isolated from each other and overwhelmed by the women, before whose greater numbers and more intense vitality they paled.”

The few biblical portraits we have of the elderly confirm the image that men fare less well in their waning years. Neither the aged Isaac nor David are models of vigor, wisdom or decisiveness. We have no reason to assume that Rebecca is any younger than her husband, yet unlike him she continues to exert control over the fate of her family. At the end, a hapless and helpless David redeems himself with one unvarnished counsel to his son Solomon, “I am going the way of all the earth; be strong and show yourself a man (I Kings 2:2).” Only Moses is blessed till the last with undimmed vision and undiminished bodily vigor.

I suspect the difference in handling the adversity of old age has as much to do with how men and women spend their younger years as with biology. Meaning for men comes primarily from their role in the public arena where they labor to provide for their families and struggle to affect the space in which they work. When that domain collapses or is abandoned, there is a risk of a commensurate decline in meaning, self–esteem and stimulation.

Till recently at least, meaning for women derived from home and hearth where they nurtured, tended to, taught and socialized with members of their extended family. Since their sense of self–worth did not depend on conquering the world outside, they were also spared the erosion and rupture that the passage of time inflicted on their husbands in the public realm. As Myerhoff observed, “The adage, ‘A woman’s work is never done’ calls attention to the continuity of woman’s tasks on a daily basis, but it also applies no less to the continuity over a lifetime.” Clearly, the women of her book, for whom the family is such a wellspring of life and strength, are models for our own retirement years.

In short, to be needed is a blessing that can keep despair at bay. Perhaps that is the deepest meaning of the words we call out in Hebrew in the synagogue when we finish reading a book of the Torah, as we shall this Shabbat: “Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen each other.” How? By sharing our needs and allowing them to be a source of meaning for someone else.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’hukkotai are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.