WE’RE NOT THE RETIRING TYPE

March 14th, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

This week, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro got caught up in a controversy over remarks he made on his show in which he suggested scrapping retirement. “It’s insane that we haven’t raised the retirement age in the United States,” he told his more than one million viewers. “[Otherwise] Joe Biden should not be running for president… Joe Biden is 81 years old. The retirement age in the United States… is 65. Joe Biden has technically been eligible for Social Security and Medicare for 16 years, and he wants to continue in office until he is 86, which is 19 years past when he would be eligible for retirement.”

“No one in the United States should be retiring at 65 years old,” Ben emphatically continued. “Frankly, I think retirement itself is a stupid idea unless you have some sort of health problem. Everybody that I know who is elderly, who has retired, is dead within five years. And if you talk to people who are elderly and they lose their purpose in life by losing their job and they stop working, things go to hell in a handbasket real quick.”

Not everyone agreed with Shapiro, and there are some quite compelling counter arguments to his thesis that Social Security is an unsustainable Ponzi Scheme, as he put it. But broadly speaking, his point is valid – people who lack any purpose in life wither away, and it is the dynamism of an active life that animates our world, often in ways that we are unaware of, far beyond the sphere of our limited personal lives.

Shapiro’s controversial remarks reminded me of an interesting anomaly of the natural world, a world that can only thrive if all of its elements are engaged. One good example of this phenomenon is the sea otter.

Sea otters play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the kelp forest ecosystem through their predation on sea urchins. Much of North America’s west coast waters are host to kelp forests, vast underwater communities which are formed by large brown algae which thrive in cool, relatively shallow waters near the shoreline. The kelp forms towering aquatic structures that offer sustenance and refuge to a diverse array of marine life, including thousands of species of fish, invertebrates, and marine mammals.

Sea urchins feed on kelp and can cause significant destruction to kelp forests if their population goes unchecked. Luckily, sea otters feed on sea urchins, and by preying on them they keep their populations at a level that prevents overgrazing of kelp, thereby preserving the kelp forest habitat. The sea otters are critical in maintaining the balance so that the kelp can do its job, although, without kelp, there would be no sea urchins, and therefore no sea otters. If just one of these elements would cease to exist, the devastation would be overwhelming.

Shapiro argued that by removing the post-65 age group from the equation, the effects on society at large – both on those who retire and on those who remain in the workforce – are devastating. This can be likened to what is known as the “trophic effect” seen in natural ecosystems, where the removal or decline of one species can have cascading effects on the entire community. Just as the sea otters’ presence influences the well-being of the kelp forest and its inhabitants, the active participation of the older generation contributes to the social and economic fabric of society.

This dynamic is very evident in the health of the Jewish world, in terms of the interdependence of Israel’s population and Jews of the diaspora. The ebbs and flows of this relationship, often unseen by those who are part of it, are critical to the health of the Jewish nation as a whole. And never has it more obvious than it has been over these past few months, since October 7th. What happens in Israel affects Jews across the world, and what happens to Jews and what Jews do outside Israel affects the situation for Jews in Israel.

When Jews around the world are subjected to wanton antisemitism, as we have been ever-increasingly over the past five months, it simply reinforces the will of Israel’s leaders and of the IDF to ensure that Israel remains the one place in the world where Jews are always free from the scourge of antisemitism – the age-old hatred to which Jews are subjected simply for being born Jewish.

Meanwhile, when Jews outside Israel see the existential challenges of their brethren in Israel, they redouble and strengthen their efforts to ensure that no stone is left unturned in the relentless pursuit of security and justice for the world’s only Jewish state in the halls of power and in every forum where pro-Israel voices can make a difference.

And the opposite is also true. When Jewish voices in the Diaspora are raised against Israel, the forces of destruction are reinforced in ways that far exceed the seeming reach of those voices. When director Jonathan Glazer stood up at the Oscars on Sunday after winning an Academy Award, and he declared that he and the producer James Wilson “stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people,” the impact of those words stretch way beyond his intent – perhaps innocent, perhaps malign – of absolving himself of some kind of collective Jewish guilt for what he perceives as injustices perpetrated by Israel in Gaza.

Thankfully, the forces of community spirit and fraternity in the Jewish world have been ignited like never before, somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Blitz spirit’ of London during the Second World War, a spirit of stoicism and determination to make the best of it, so that we triumph over every adversity thrown our way. Wherever we are, in Israel or outside Israel, we are there to help each other, and to provide each other with the support that is needed to get through it all.

In Parshat Pekudei, we find a poignant reflection of enduring spirit and commitment. As the Israelites continued to contribute resources for the construction of the Mishkan, their generosity was so overwhelming that Moses had to ask them to stop, declaring (Ex. 36:6): “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” Reluctantly, the people stopped bringing stuff for the builders to use, as “their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.”

This historical moment encapsulates a profound truth about our community’s default nature: namely, our willingness to go above and beyond for the collective good, even when we’ve already done enough. No true Jew can ever retire from their Jewish identity, nor from their commitment to doing everything they can do, to sustain Jewish life wherever it lives and breathes.

This is the story of the Jewish people – always there for each other, continuing to give of themselves and from what they have, even when it’s more than enough. The vitality of our collective existence, much like the ecological balance, relies on the active participation of every member. When we withdraw our engagement, the effects ripple through our community, diminishing our collective strength and resilience.

This is how we have kept the ecosystem going for well over three millennia, and the story continues apace. Those who opt out are the outliers. But the rest of us continue to thrive and prosper, and whether you are in Israel or in the Diaspora, the future remains bright.

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