Elizabeth Brown | October 13, 2005
I’ve recently been thinking a lot: “I can’t be that old!” When I look in the mirror I see a younger man. My age and my self image don’t compute.
For some of us the age of our children belies our self-image. When the actress Hermione Gingold was asked how old she was she said “I don’t know but my children are older!”
Conversations with many of you confirm that we, who are old enough to remember our parents, grandparents or others when they were our age, think of them as having been more grown up than we, or older, frailer or more dependent.
These holidays remind us of the passing of years, of how quickly even this year has gone by.
20 year olds say that their school years pass in the blink of an eye. 30 year olds struggle with now being considered grown up. 40 and 50 year olds think that “middle-age” describes the older generation just before them. 60 year olds suddenly seem to find themselves at the specified gateway to retirement and others cannot imagine that they have arrived there. Youthful 70 year olds squirm with the designation that they are senior citizens and hate to be told they are living in their golden years. And even those in the 80’s and 90’s can wince at being called “elderly”.
We move through all these stages of our life and in the good times we feel that life is going incredibly fast, even too fast.
In the second century Rabbi Judah b.Tema wrote about the responsibilities incumbent on us at different ages “We are ready to study Torah when we are five years old. By 13 years old we are able to fulfill the commandments; at 18 we were to marry, at 20 we began a career. At 30 we take on community responsibility. At 40 we finally gain understanding. At 50, we provide counsel and advice. At 60 we’re considered elders. At 70 we attain wisdom (literally it says we are known for our ‘gray hair’). At 80 we reach strong old age…” (Pirke Avot 5.21)
The vector of life is indisputable. We are born and we get older. At some point we realize that we’re closer to the end than the beginning of life. Each day’s experiences become wisdom for the next. Time rolls by at a breathless tempo. We are intent in savoring each moment.
Then, rather unexpectedly, there comes the juncture for which we are completely untrained, when we become caretakers to our own parents. It is on the minds of many of us. Without instruction from our parents about what they want and totally unprepared for the emotional impact, we become parents to our parents. We attempt to maintain their dignity and self-esteem even when their diminishing physical abilities become a critical affront to their independence and pride. Our parents suffer because they don’t want to be a burden on us. We want them to know that we are pleased to do for them a small part of what they did for us when we were young. And then suddenly it dawns on us that the time will come when we, like our parents, will need the care of others.
We understand that it is tough to be old. It is painful to mourn a spouse or lose friends or wait for visits from family who are understandably busy in their own lives. It is difficult to live by ourselves at the end of life, to be nursed by caretakers or in a residence we know to be our last.
Being old takes remarkable courage and I ‘m awed by the valor of all who bravely face mortality and who, in the words of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi “use the information of long life to gain wisdom.” It takes enormous strength and it is to be honored.
There is timeless wisdom in our tradition on how to live well at every age. This is what we learn: anticipate each day with hope. Love. Be holy.
Speaking at the Hebrew Union College in 1915 Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver said that “Age worships at the shrine of memory and Youth at the Temple of hope.” (Silver, p. 13) While I don’t believe that we should ever retreat into the “silent corridors” of memory I think it is important to remain vital by charging ahead to meet the unique struggles and wonderful possibilities that each new day provides.
One day I asked an 81 year old friend his thoughts about aging. He said “I don’t think of myself as old. I awaken every morning looking forward to the day and that keeps me youthful.”
By nature we are a hopeful people. A Midrash teaches that 10 Psalms were sung by the Israelites in response to a crisis. The first was sung when we were delivered from Egypt, the second when we crossed the sea of reeds, another by Moses before his death and another by Joshua at his victory over the Amorites. We will sing the 10th Psalm together when there is a peaceful world. We are an optimistic people.
Jews maintained confidence in the midst of the most dire and difficult days. We believe in the triumph of righteousness and goodness and we look forward to better times. It is our legacy to believe in possibility, to believe in opportunity, to believe that circumstances will improve. We are the heirs of undefeated optimism. As long as we have breath, life permits each of us to look forward to the future.
We believe that life has value and that age does not preempt opportunity. According to the Torah Moses who lived until he was 120 began his significant life work when he was eighty. He had already lived two-thirds of his life when first he appeared in Pharaoh’s throne room to let his people go and it was only the last third of his life that he spent leading our ancestors through the desert, the events for which he is remembered. We have shining examples of greatness. Chaim Weitzman became the first president of Israel in his mid-seventies. Henrietta Szold remarkably rescued children from the Nazi maelstrom when she was in her seventies
George Santayana said “Never have I enjoyed youth so thoroughly as I have in my old age.” There are 20 years olds in college and there are octogenarians today taking college courses. There are 30 year olds getting married and there are 80 year olds falling in love. Just as there are 40 year olds starting new careers there are 90 year olds finding new hobbies. And as there are 50 year olds celebrating with new grandchildren there are 100 year olds celebrating new great-great grandchildren.
We keep our spirits vigorous when we to look forward to life.
“Some can be young and old at the same time” Sidney Greenberg wrote.
“Some can be young enough to enjoy pleasure, but old enough to know that pleasure is not the entire purpose of living.
“Some can be young enough to want to be attractive, but old enough to appreciate that beauty shines from within.
So when we can no longer run as quickly as once we did, we can still avail ourselves of the gifts of hope and anticipation: the optimistic belief that every day is an opportunity for good works and good news.
And there is another side of aging too. When we are ill and hurting it is difficult to get up in the morning. Pain can bludgeon us into depression and even surrender and it can be a dreadful, unrelenting experience. The prophet Micah faithfully believed that “when he sat in darkness, God would be his light.” (7.8) but our tradition does not advocate suffering as the path to enlightenment. The ancient Greeks taught that we learn through suffering but we believed there are far better ways to attain wisdom. Fortunately, modern medicine affords the availability of palliative care and pain management. We have every right to seek the reduction of pain so that we may maintain courage and honor when we are ill at any age, so that we have energy to hope for the future.
We live with anticipation and hope nourishes our spirit.
And to live well is love well
In our earliest religious training we are taught two matters of love: “v’ahavta l’ray-acha kamocha” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and “v’ahavta ayt adonoi elohecha” “you shall love the Lord your God.”
Loving humanity is an expression of loving the Divine. We humans live more by personal attachment than by reason. That is why love is essential. Though we can live on our own, we cannot live without other people in our lives. Martin Buber describes love as an I-Thou relation in which people are so fully present for each other that there is a “unity of being”. People who love share respect, commitment, and responsibility. People who love care about each other. Life feels empty when we don’t love.
Dr. Diane Meier, an expert on palliative care, said this about people who are critically ill: people are more afraid to be alone than afraid of pain or of losing control. People who are ill are even more afraid of being alone than of dying. Patients desperately seek time for conversations with those they love: family, friends, caretakers. They want a hand to hold.
When we care about someone and they care about us, life has value.
We can face life’s vicissitudes when there is someone by our side. Our tradition compels us to comfort the mourner. We should not be alone at a time of loss. Our tradition commands us to celebrate with bride and groom. We should not be alone at a time of joy. Jews depend on community. It is important that we care and that we are cared for. Attachments grow like roots anchoring us in this world.
Hope and love are companions on life’s journey. There is one more crucial attribute.
We are to be holy
A member of this congregation recounts this story. When she visited her mother after her mother developed dementia, her mother would ask her daughter “Please, tell me about my life.” The daughter cogently and patiently recounted the stories she remembered and heard from her mother: when her mother was young, when her mother came to this country, when her mother married. Then she added her own recollections of her mother from her own childhood and teen-age years and beyond. When she finished the narrative her mother, after a moment, reflected “It was a good life, wasn’t it?”
The value of life is measured by whether it was a good life. We are expected to fill every day with sacred acts. The Torah portion for this holiday provides a straight forward template. We are commanded to honor our family, be honest in business, care for community, be responsible for society’s well-being and treat the elderly with dignity. Every portion of life is addressed. It is what the Torah teaches us about being holy.
And we cannot wait. Greenberg tells the story of a businessman of extraordinary accomplishments and boundless generosity. Upon his retirement he was asked how he managed to accomplish so much in his life to which he replied “I did everything promptly.”
The Torah demands we do what we know to do, now: to pay laborers as soon as they have finished their work, to tell the truth, to welcome strangers, to act justly, and to honor parents. When the ancient Israelite brought to God a sacrifice of first fruits of the harvest the worshipper concluded a declaration of gratitude saying “v’atah” “And now I have brought the first of the fruit which You O God have given me.”
The rabbinic commentators called attention to words “v’atah”. “And now…” They concluded that the commandments were to be implemented promptly.
We live a good life by urgently fulfilling the Torah’s standard for us.
This is a day for taking account. While we hope that we and all those we love will all get older for a good long time, we know the days are passing. This is a good time to put our house in order. This is a good time, the best time, to articulate gratitude to those who care for us, to speak of love to those who love us. This is a good time to ask parents how they want to age on their terms. And this is a good time, no matter how difficult it is, to tell children of our wishes and to plan for the future. Above all this is a good time, the very best time to relish the deliciousness of today and each day of our lives.
So, from the Psalm let this be our prayer: For as long as we have, O God, teach us to count our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom. (90.12)
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