Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
December 10, 2016
Today I get to ask the question posed by Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band, and which I first heard when I was the tender age of 14. Today I ask, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?”
That’s because today I turn 64.
When columnist John Start celebrated his 64th birthday he wrote, “As every boomer knows, this is a milestone birthday — as important as turning 21, 40 or 65… Who of our generation doesn’t know the words by heart? … It’s in our DNA.”
The song was written by Paul McCartney when he was 15 or 16 years old, and polished up many years later when Paul’s father turned 64. The vaudevillian style song opens with the somewhat frivolous and irreverent,
“When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?”
It may be hard to believe, but when McCartney wrote it the average life expectancy was 63. As Start wrote, “In 1967 people who were 64 seemed ancient and very square, like Bing Crosby, Arthur Godfrey and Lawrence Welk.”
On the surface it portrays an idyllic vision of old age: of someone who still wants to party and stay out late, while at the same time being a faithful home-bound couple where one mends a fuse, as his loved one sits by the fireside knitting a sweater. Working together in the garden, renting a summer cottage, with grandchildren named Chuck, Vera and Dave, they go out for Sunday morning rides in the country.
“Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?”
The perspective of the teenager from Liverpool who wrote the song is of a young man anxiously and hopefully looking towards old age. It reflects our mixed feelings and anxiety about growing old. Like many of us, he wants to have it all. He wants to party hard and also be a home body.
Released in the summer of 1967 on the revolutionary and ground-breaking Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, at a time when 64 seemed distant to our self-absorbed generation and we were told not to trust anyone over 30, the lyricist looks wistfully into the distant future. But beneath the up-beat, happy go-lucky tune and frivolous lyrics lie profound questions which we all confront. We, like the person in the song want to know if love can be everlasting, if it will endure the test of time. When he asks, “will you still feed me”, he is asking will I still be cared for when I can no longer care for myself. The other question of the chorus, “will you still need me when I’m 64” asks if in a youth obsessed society will we still matter as we age?
We boomers thought we would never get old. And in truth, not everyone who grows old does so gracefully. The teenager who wrote it asks questions we all think about. He is really asking if it is possible to find fulfillment, meaning, dignity, respect, love and purpose when one is no longer young?
Incidentally, I assumed there was no connection to the topic of my sermon and this week’s parasha Vayeitzei until I came across a comment by Rabbi Yaakov Kamentsky that says that Yaakov spent the first 63 years of his life studying Torah with his father before setting out for Haran. In other words, according to this commentator, Yaakov was 64 when he left Israel for Haran as described in our reading this morning!
Consciously or not, McCartney may have been channeling the poet King David. 3,000 years ago the king who composed poetry and songs wrote in the Book of Psalms the famous words, al tashleecheni b’et zikna: “Do not cast me off in old age. When my strength fails, do not forsake me.” (Ps. 71:9) And the verse in Psalms 71:18, really sounds like something McCartney could have written, “even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Your strength to the next generation, Your power to all who are to come.”
Those words, “until I declare Your strength to the next generation” may be the key to understanding what our tradition tells us about what keeps us going. We all want to live a long life, but we do not want to be old. The psalmist recognizes that we want to remain active and independent, to continue to contribute to society and to pass on our wisdom, knowledge and the benefit of our experience to our loved ones and the next generation.
There may be something innate about the fear of growing old. I read that in ancient times tribes used to either put the elderly on a raft or throw them off a mountain. (I think I would take the raft.) Judaism’s attitude stands in stark contrast to this approach, for it has always valued our elders and seen growing older as a blessing, as something to celebrate and embrace.
DaVinci, Bellini, Michelangelo, as well as Moses and so many others produced their greatest works and made their most important contributions to society when they were advanced in years.
Rabbi Saul Teplitz wrote, “A person cannot help being old, but can resist being aged. Age is determined by a person’s perspective. When a person feels that he has climbed his last hill, reached his last goal, or dreamed his last dream (is when) old age sets in.” Speaking personally, I feel that I still have hills to climb and dreams to dream, for as the prophet Joel said in words that have always inspired and motivated me, “Your young shall see visions, and your elders shall dream dreams.”
Others have echoed Rabbi Teplitz’ sentiment. General Douglas MacArthur captured the essence of how important attitude is when he said, “You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hopes, as old as your despair.” This is what Benjamin Disraeli meant when he declared that age is a state of mind more than anything else. Or as someone once said, “It’s not how old you are that is important, but how you are old.”
The Book of Psalms tells us, “They will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green”, (ibid, 92:14) which I take to mean that there is still much living left, even for those who are blessed to reach the age of 64 and beyond.
After all, at a time when there is so much that divides us, and when our nation and our people seem to be so torn and divided, one thing we all have in common is that we are older today than we were yesterday. With the passing of each year the setting of the sun is more familiar, and therefore that much less frightening and uncertain.
Like Jacob about whom we read today, life involves ascending and transcending the ladder of life, with achievements and disappointments along the way. The poet Alvin Fine writes about the stages of life that, “Life is a journey, going and growing from stage to stage. From childhood to maturity and youth to age, from innocence to awareness and knowing; from foolishness to discretion and then perhaps to wisdom.
From weakness to strength,…
From health to sickness, and back, we pray, to health again.
From offence to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding-
From fear to faith.
From defeat to defeat to defeat-
Until, looking backward or ahead
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, … a sacred pilgrimage…”
So today when I ask, if you will still need me, and will you still feed me when I’m 64, I hope the answer is yes, and that we all may continue to grow older together on the sacred pilgrimage known as the journey of life.
Also published on Medium.