Who Counts?
A Jewish Perspective on Age

Screen capture: D’rash Design Project (etsy.com)

By Mariel Schwartz

This week, we read parashat Pinchas and consider who counts – and who doesn’t – in the eyes of God.

God commands, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years upward, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms” (Numbers 26:2)

Why does God request these counts of the Israelite community?

“Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often,” the medieval commentator, Rashi, explains.

In both censuses in Bamidbar, God says to count from the age of twenty years upward – there is no age cutoff or ceiling. All males, regardless of age, are counted. It seems that in God’s census, a 20 year-old male is of the same value as an 80 year-old male. No distinction is made.

Yet our society fails to account for the value of older adults. As Joseph Coughlin writes in The Longevity Economy, older adults as a group are largely viewed today as “a singular, homogenous population that depends on the largesse of others to survive because it can’t provide for itself. Older people are assumed to live apart, quietly sequestered away in retirement communities, assisted-living facilities, and nursing homes (2017, p. 16).

Although the older generation of Israelites never got to experience the Promised Land, they offered the new generation of Israelites something of transcendent value – their legacy. They gave the wisdom and lessons that can only come from a life lived, to sustain the next generation and prepare them for the journey ahead.

Perhaps this is why, whereas the first census command was directed at Moses, this second command is directed “to Moses and to Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest.” Though Eleazar represents the young leadership and the generation that will enter the land, we are reminded that he stands alongside the living Moses and on the shoulders of the deceased Aaron, elders and leaders of the generation of the Exodus.

This Shabbat, may we consider our tradition’s narrative of aging, one of possibility and a new way of counting that includes the rich wisdom of our elders. One that places no ceiling on worth.

May we design environments and create communities where individuals can flourish in their old age.

And let us remember that we all count, and therefore are dear, in the eyes of God.

Mariel Schwartz, LLMSW graduated in 2017 from the University of Michigan’s Jewish Communal Leadership Program with a Master of Social Work and a specialization in Aging. She currently works as a Geriatric Social Worker to improve the quality of life for older adults in the Detroit Metropolitan Jewish community.