Don't Get Old, Grow Old
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
Colonel Sanders was well over sixty when he made it big with Kentucky Fried Chicken. Before that, he simply sold chicken and other food at a service station in Corbin, Kentucky. When the Interstate 75 was built, diverting traffic away from his restaurant, his business was close to failing. Yet Sanders believed that he could do it. Instead of despairing or muddling through somehow, he adapted. He walked the long miles, pitching his unique recipe and was knocked back 1009 times before someone decided to give him a chance to build what is now known today as the highly successful food chain KFC. Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu – conceived Isaac, the forebearer of Israel, the Jewish Nation which brought monotheism, law, morality and ethics such as the ten commandments to all humanity – at the ages of one hundred and ninety respectively.
Colonel Sanders, and Avraham and Sarah, about whom we read on Rosh Hashanah, all teach us one fundamental life lesson. There is no direct correlation between age and productivity. While many people are most productive and successful as young or middle-aged adults, many are more successful in their more senior years. Which years will be most fruitful? One never knows and therefore one should never stop producing. “In the morning sow your seeds and in the evening do not rest your hands.” Of this verse from Ecclesiastes our sages explain that just as one learns and teaches Torah when one is young, one should learn and teach Torah when one is old. If one has children when one is young, one should have children when one is old. Who knows which will be more successful? Rabbi Akiva had 24000 students in his younger years and all 24000 died in a plague. He then taught five students in his later years and it was these students who formed the link in the chain of transmission of the Torah to the next generation.
Our Sages are teaching us that we need to be challenging ourselves, to be growing and to be producing constantly. We need to grow old, not get old. This is the message of Avraham and Sarah. In Torah thinking retirement from the corporate/working world is a voluntary privilege, but retirement from growing spiritually, developing one’s character, having dreams, goals, aspirations and being a contributing member of society is forbidden. Every day provides us with experiences that enable us to become wiser, a better spouse, a better parent and a greater member of the community. It is no wonder our Rabbi’s teach us that the Hebrew word for an elderly person, zakein, is an acronym for “zeh shekanah chochma” – the one who has acquired wisdom.
A year has passed since last Rosh Hashanah and we are all one year older. The question that Rosh Hashanah asks is not whether we are getting older, but rather whether we are growing older. This Rosh Hashanah we should commit ourselves to exit the mindset of retirement and commit ourselves to growing and thriving, irrespective of our ages or past accomplishments. In the merit of this commitment may God grant us another year of good health, wealth, happiness and productivity. Shana Tova!