I have been teaching at Boston College for the last ten years on a part-time basis, two electives in the Fall and two electives in the Spring semester, and I love it. Even while working as a congregational rabbi, I was on the faculty of BC, and after my retirement in 2003, I devoted more time and energy to my teaching. It kept my mind alert and, twice a week, it gave me something to look forward. This Fall, however, I faced a challenge unlike any other. Because of budget restrictions, the College began to review its policy with regard to electives taught by non-tenured professors like me, and I feared my position would be cut.
For a few weeks I contemplated the possibility that I may not be able to teach again. At age 71, I don’t want to work full time, nor do I need it financially. In the past, as a synagogue Rabbi, I counseled many people who had lost jobs, and now, for the first time in my life, I faced the same issue. I asked myself, what will I do every day? How will I keep myself busy? Am I still useful to others? One of my grand-daughters facetiously suggested that I could work at Trader Joe’s. Someone else wanted me to volunteer at a local library. Finally, the dénouement occurred two weeks ago when the chair of my department, with the recommendation of the curriculum committee, asked me to teach Judaica subjects again next year, though one elective less and not all the biblical subjects I loved to cover. Well, c’est la vie! It is better than nothing.
This mini crisis made me think about the countless people who lose their positions and become unemployed every year. How do they pay the monthly bills? How do they fill up their days? How do they deal with rejection and bad luck? It is clear to me that, even though our jobs do not define or describe us, they do give us some structure, and often help create purpose and meaning in our lives. “When you eat the labor of your hands, happy shall you be” says the Psalmist (Ps. 128:2). The ancient Rabbis knew this well too. Work, they taught, confers “honor” to the worker (Ned. 49b). Though some sages argued that the burden of worldly occupation is removed from those who are engaged in Torah (cf. Num. R. Hukkat, 19/26), others more realistically added that the study of Torah has to be accompanied by “derekh eretz” (worldly occupations) (M Avot 2/2; cf. 3/21).
The lesson for a retired person like me is this: continue to work as long as your health allows; try to find satisfaction in your daily profession; be useful to yourself and others, and, just in case, develop other hobbies to keep your mind alert.
Maybe it is time to pick up the old violin again!