A million dollars is not enough

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Seth D Gordon

Even a casual read of this week’s parashah reveals that the narrative shifts from Ya’akov to his children; Yoseph assumes the lead role, and Yehudah, Re’uven and his other brothers are his supporting cast. But Ya’akov remains the subject of the opening verse. With the simple initial word, “Va-yeshev,” the Torah informs us that Ya’akov settled in the land of his ancestors. Given the rest of the parashah, why? Traditional commentators and modern scholars note the demarcation: “Va-yeshev” divides Ya’akov from his past 20 years in Aram, or contrasts him with the path of his twin brother, Esav.

RaSHI’s later comment highlights this facet, but differently: Ya’akov is ready for a new stage in life. “Ya’akov sought to dwell in tranquility, but the anger directed at Yoseph sprang upon him.” RaSHI extends the idea with a Talmudic comment: The righteous do not receive their tranquility in this world, but in Olam ha-Ba (the World-to-Come).

Ya’akov’s new stage may be akin to our retirement, when those who have worked hard, day after day, week after week, look forward to their golden years. But life for Ya’akov, and for us, is unpredictable; it does not always go as planned.

Sadly, the economic distress of the past years – diminished investments and free-falling property values  – has radically affected visions of and the reality of retirement. Too many lack the savings and security they once anticipated. Dreams of exotic trips have faded; other joys have been indefinitely postponed. Many must actively seek employment in an economic environment bereft of jobs. And still others have been forced into an early, unexpected and uncertain retirement.

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Recently my wife and I met with a financial planner. I was startled to learn that life insurance policies are now being written for 121 years! Consider the mixed blessing of a longer life. The previous generation would retire in their early to mid 60’s and could expect to live into their 70’s, perhaps 80’s. Now 70 is a more realistic retirement age, but we need to provide for ourselves into our 90’s. Living off the interest on assets of $1,000,000, totaling perhaps $40,000 a year, even with Social Security, but with increased health expenses, may not be enough. And if 121 is correct, millennials may need to plan to retire in their mid-70’s and provide for 30 to 50 years more! Financial planning may take on a new urgency.

And while addressing financial provisions is vital, retirement is not only about money. It is about what we should do and can do with another stage of our lives and what we want to do with those years. The American model, with planned communities in warm climates touting years of enjoying simple (and sometimes special) pleasures – great trips with elegant dining in far-away places, golf, games, and shows, sounds attractive, but it is steeped in self-satisfying pleasure. Aimlessly, many simply follow.

Such a life, one primarily dedicated to enjoyment, may not be so satisfying, and certainly should not go unexamined and unchallenged. Work may be burdensome, but it develops humility and the worker contributes to society. People may brag about sun and fun, but a life whose primary aim is pleasure is not what God and Torah have in mind. Spiritual planning should also be given its due.

One million dollars is not enough, because, although money should is to be valued and respected, it is not the measure of a Godly life. Our deeds matter even more. Free from the everyday burdens of life there is an alternate vision, without eschewing pleasure, that can provide meaning and holiness: Retired, we can perform mitzvot – volunteering our expertise to help those in need; providing regular support for a minyan; freely studying Torah with others (excellent adult opportunities abound); initiating or supporting an important congregational program.

Ya’akov, now dwelling in the land of his ancestors, looked forward to tranquility; in all of life’s stages, we are presented with the opportunity to dwell in the world of our ancestors and find the spiritual tranquility and the tikkun olam that comes with God and Torah. Our bank accounts and assets will still matter, but not at the expense of our soul and what we can contribute.

Shabbat Shalom.

D’var Torah – Va-yashev

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation in Creve Coeur and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.