From the time of the wilderness wanderings, the Levites formed an important part of the Israelite socio-economic structure. In Numbers 8:18-19 we learn not only that God "take(s) the Levites instead of every first-born among the Israelites," but that God "assign(s) the Levites to Aaron and his sons, to perform the service for the Israelites in the Tent of the Meeting and to make expiation for the Israelites, so that no plague may afflict the Israelites for coming too near the sanctuary." As these two verses state, the Levites do double duty for the Israelites. First, the Levites take the place of the required b'chorim sacrifice (discussed previously in Parashat B'midbar). This means that Israelite households are now "plus one" with respect to contributing members of the family economic structure. Moreover, the Levites are sanctified to God, meaning they are set apart, able to offer atonement for their fellow Israelites. Such sacrifices held a significant place in Israelite society, for as we learn in the Priestly Code of Leviticus (Chapters 1-16), purity-achieved through atonement-was directly related to holiness. We are all familiar with the charge "You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). Thus, without the Levitical order, it appears the Israelites could not fully obtain holiness. I specifically used the phrase "fully obtain holiness" for a reason, for the verse quoted above comes not from the Priestly Code in Leviticus, but from the Holiness Code, also found in Leviticus (Chapters 17-26). The Holiness Code is not as concerned with purity as the Priestly Code is. In fact, the Holiness Code rewrites the Priestly Code, adding in an emphasis on morals and ethics. Therefore, "be holy, for I the Eternal your God, am holy" includes more than maintaining a pure society, it means upholding a moral and ethical society as well.
One way you could uphold such values is to respect your place within the social hierarchy. Such a statement may seem a bit odd; however, it appears that intergenerational conflict may have been a prominent issue in ancient societies (for example, Jacob tricking Isaac [Genesis 27], Eli and Samuel's son's "dissing" the ways of their fathers [I Samuel 2, 8], Absalom rebelling against David [II Samuel 15-18], and so forth). In Parashat B'haalot'cha, we find a law that addresses an intergenerational situation. We are told that a Levite can serve in the Tabernacle from age twenty-five to age fifty. After age fifty, "they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more. They may assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting by standing guard, but they shall perform no labor" (Numbers 8:25-26). God has set a time limit on Tabernacle service and issued a "forced retirement" memorandum. We may ask why such a law was included. Approaching the law from a socio-historical perspective gives us some different answers, all of which are intertwined and all of which address the potential for intergenerational conflict.
To begin, we must understand that in the ancient world the life cycle was divided up into three stages: childhood, adulthood, and old age. Of these three, adulthood (twenty to forty-nine years old) was the most-valued stage of life, for it was the time in which a person was the most economically productive. An Akkadian text from the seventh century BCE states that forty is the prime of life. The decades of life from ages fifty to ninety are described in terms of increasingly getting older (Sultantepe 400).
Interestingly enough, the cutoff for active Levitical duty corresponds to the age at which one was considered "on the path to old age." Old men were understood to be liabilities in war. We learn at the start of Numbers that a census was taken to determine who among the Israelites was able to go to war. Moses and Aaron count men "twenty years up" (Numbers 1:3). Note that it says "able to go to bear arms," for while there is strength in numbers, in wartimes the marginalization of old men was particularly pronounced. Like in military duty, an old Levite in the Tabernacle cannot be as active or useful as an adult Levite. Yet as we see in today's society, we see in ancient societies that "generational conflict resulted from the reluctance of the elders to yield or share their power with the younger men" (R. Harris, Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia, [Norman, OK:University of Oklahoma Press, 2000], x). To mitigate circumstances in which a Levite was unwilling to give up his duties, a law was created that gives the next generation of Levites job security. At age fifty, a Levite must step aside.
Job security is only one angle of the law. Tied to this law is the liability that comes with getting older and declining physically: reaction time diminishes, attention to detail fades, hands become shaky, and eyesight dims. Given the precision needed to prepare a sacrifice correctly (see Leviticus for examples), a thirty-year-old Levite would be more likely to perform sacrifices correctly than an eighty-year-old Levite. However, recognizing one's own physical limitations is not always easy. Harder still is the acknowledgement and ownership of such limitations. Lest an elderly Levite's pride prevent him from stepping down, God instituted a safeguard into the Levitical system; at age fifty, one must retire from active duty.
Yet the law does not state that a Levite must never again set foot on the Tabernacle grounds, in fact, it says the opposite; they may assist their brothers (Numbers 8:26). This piece of the law focuses on the positive qualities that come in aging, for with age comes knowledge and wisdom. Thus, while the sapiential (wise) Levite may not be able to actively serve in the Tabernacle, he is able to mentor the next generation and pass on the knowledge gained from a lifetime of service to ensure that the next generation of Levites will do their best to assist Israelites on their path to holiness. While the age brackets prescribed in ancient times may not apply in our youth-oriented society today, we can draw wisdom from a model that values the contribution of each member, in each stage of life.
Kristine Garroway received her Ph.D. from HUC-Cincinnati in 2009 and recently joined the faculty of HUC-JIR Los Angeles as visiting assistant professor of Hebrew Bible. Her research concentrates on children in the ancient Near East and the Deuteronomistic Histories.
Professor Garroway's perspective on Numbers 8:25-26 provides great insight into aging, understanding personal limits, and the wisdom we can offer to others throughout our lives. These words, at the same time, can offer us an invitation to break free from outdated ideas that currently turn out to be ineffective and prevent us from reaching our goals.
It's been said that, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." The premise might seem ridiculous, for why would anyone try to do the same thing over again and assume a different result was possible? Yet, too many times, personally or professionally, many settle for the current paradigms, which often do not achieve one's desired outcomes. This might include aspiring to lead a healthier lifestyle, yet constantly refusing to take the steps required to accomplish it. It could be continuing to follow a particular business protocol even though there are cheaper and more efficient ways to operate. Or it could involve the constant use of an idea that proves time and time again to produce sub-par results.
Without confronting issues, voicing our opinion, or challenging the status quo, it can be impossible to see the limitless opportunities that exist in our world. Thus, it is imperative to "retire" certain ideas, attitudes, and models, as Numbers 8:25 suggests, which prevent us from the potential of great innovation, creativity, and forethought.
"B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,075–1,100; Revised Edition, pp. 950–973;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 843–868"