Judaism - Torah

“How many adventures this person must have experienced!”

Thoughts for Kol Nidre 5780

Think about the oldest person who held you when you were a baby. In what year were they born?

Now think about the youngest member of your extended family. When were they born

For me, that’s my great-grandmother, Angèle Lambert, who met me when I was 11-months old, on a trip to Victoria, British Columbia. 97 at the time, she was born in 1887. The youngest member of my family right now is my cousin Molly, just over a year old.

If you consider the life spans of the oldest and the youngest people from your life today, and you imagine a robust life for the youngest, you get a period through the past, present, and into the future of approximately 200 years.

“You were held and touched, and you will touch the lives, of people that cover a 200-year present,” teaches the Quaker sociologist and peace researcher, Elise Boulding. She encouraged us to remember: our actions have long-reverberating impacts – both forward into the future, and also backward onto those who came before us.

We’re getting better – we really are – at thinking about our forward impact. Just consider the place of Greta Thunberg as a modern-day prophet.

But I wonder where we’re at with the other direction. How are we doing with those who came before us?

“Gauge a country’s prosperity by its treatment of the aged,” offered Reb Nachman.

It’s hard. Nobody over the age of 21 likes thinking about getting old. Thinking more about how we relate to our elders requires us to realize that we ourselves are going to grow old. And it means that we have to reckon with “the decline we will unavoidably face…” (Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, 46)

So why would we want to be close to this inevitability? Why wouldn’t we turn in the opposite direction – to the vitality and optimism of youth? To the future, and all the limitless wonder it holds? How often do we stop and marvel at the way children look at the world? How much easier it is to say: “I learn so much about the world from kids and their wide eyes.”

Of course, it’s not either/or. But when was the last time you looked deep into the eyes of someone three times your age?

For most of human history, elders lived in multigenerational systems, surrounded by family and entrenched in community. I’ve been blessed to spend a lot of my life with my four grandparents. We lived around the corner from my mom’s parents, Jeanne and Jack, and they were a permanent fixture in my life.

The oldest person I know right now is my dad’s mom, my Bubbie Rachel. She is almost 98 years old, and while a pretty sharp woman who still lives on her own (with her fantastic caregivers), she is not as mobile as she used to be. So the great anxiety of the last year of my life has been whether or not she would be able to come to my wedding earlier this year.

She made it. And in a way, it was important to me that she be there not just because I love her and we’re a close family, but because it’s a symbol of what kind of world we live in when we make it possible for such moments to happen together. A grandmother – no matter her mobility – should be able to celebrate with her grandchildren.

And her grandchildren – and all those of our generation – should be supporting a world where this is possible.

Once upon a time, our elders occupied a unique and special place in society. As Dr. Atul Gawande reminds us in his profound book Being Mortal, they were “guardians of tradition, knowledge, and history… they commanded respect and obedience… led sacred rites… so much respect accrued to the elderly that people used to pretend to be older than they were, not younger, when giving their age… the dignity of old age was something to which everyone aspired.” (Being Mortal, 18)

But today? We lie about our age and pretend we are younger. We lie to ourselves by hiding our greying hair and injecting chemicals into our bodies to feign the appearance of youth.  And – worst of all – we lie to each other: We squirrel away our elders in nursing homes and intensive care units. Perhaps out of good intentions to provide what we call “medical care.” But let’s also admit: it’s because we are afraid. We are terrified of growing old, and so out of sight, out of mind.

In a way, this problem is partly what Yom Kippur is about. It’s a dress rehearsal for our death. We dress in white, deny ourselves life-giving nourishment, and confront our mortality head on: “who will live and who will die?” Every other day of the year, we mostly avoid this impermanence. But we can’t avoid our nature today. And you know what? It makes us better. Just like connecting with our elders does. But most of us don’t get to grow up and old near our elders the way we used to.

Maybe this is also why there’s such an explosion of interest in genetic mapping and Ancestry.com family trees. 23andMe tells us on their website that they’re “all about real science, real data and genetic insights,” and that with them you can “know your personal story, in a whole new way.”

Just fill out a form online, get an anonymized encrypted code, spit in a tube, and mail it off to a corporate address. This is supposedly what it means to discover who we are.

We have an intuitive sense that we have to be part of something greater that extends far back before today… but so often without a personal connection to our elders, it’s hard to know what that something greater is.

In this respect, 23andMe and Ancestry.com are false balms for our existential woes.

This is a two-way problem. Not only are we cutting our elders off from the things in life that give life itself meaning; we’re cutting everyone else off from the ability to reap the rewards of those lived lives.

And so we should want a radical shift in how we relate to our elders. Not as people who just happen to be old; not as bearers of problems we ask our geriatricians to solve; but a paradigm shift. A return. To rethink what it means to be “an elder” and to recapture what it means to build a society where being “an elder” is not a problem to be managed, but an honour to be celebrated by us all.

Of course, it’s also true that it wasn’t always great to grow old. In the days before social safety nets, poorhouses were the destination for the elderly who didn’t have children or wealth to fall back on. Filled with disease and infestation, they were essentially prisons for the sick, poor, and elderly. And it’s also true that there has probably never been a better time to be old than today. Life expectancy is mostly increasing, diseases are falling, and people have the ability to live independently for much longer, if they choose.

But life with elders has gone from being “a shared, multigenerational responsibility to a more or less private state – something experienced largely alone.” (Being Mortal, 17)

What can we do about this?

When you ride public transit in Israel, there’s a sign above the seats near the front door that says: Mipnei seivah, takum. It’s the same kind of these seats reserved for seniors sign that we’re familiar with. Except this one comes right out of the Torah. Mipnei seivah, takum, ve-hadarta penei zaken, the Torah says: “You shall stand up in the presence of elders and have reverence for elders.”

This is an idea that goes back very, very far in our tradition.

2,000 years ago, our earliest rabbis taught: “One who learns from elders is compared to what? To one who eats ripe grapes and drinks aged wine.”

It’s no coincidence that we joke about aging like a fine wine. One of our teachers comments that – just like a really well-aged wine, there is a robustness, complexity, and nuance that comes with age that just can’t be matched in youth.

This is something we are in need of – some more robustness, complexity, and nuanced perspectives in our lives. Think about how distant we feel from each other. England now has a Ministry of Loneliness. Think about how polarizing our politics has become – so often lacking the nuance and depth we’d prefer. Think about how we live in a perpetual consumer-driven cycle of upgrades. There is a cult of newness that makes it so hard to hang on to the meaningful things that are older.

And this has far-reaching impact.

Karl Pillemer, a Professor of Gerontology and the Director of the Cornell Legacy Project, once asked a group of his undergraduate students what they wanted to learn about work and careers from their elders.

He recalls:

I anticipated that they would want to hear about success strategies, tips for getting ahead, and suggestions for landing a high-paying dream job. So I was taken aback by the first question. It came from Josh, a future money manager dressed in a jacket and tie. He asked: ‘I’d like you to ask them about something that really worries me. Do I need a purpose in life? That’s what all the books say, but I guess I don’t have one. Is there something wrong with me? And how do I get a purpose if I need one?’ There was furious nodding from the other participants.”

One of the things our elders give us is the same richness of a full-body glass of wine. A depth of perspective that is so hard for those of us who are younger to piece together in our a-la-carte world.

It’s the height of arrogance to think that we’ve reached the apex of human intellect and that we can’t learn from those who came before us. These are people who grappled with the fundamental questions of human existence. They can bring us sublime wisdom, if we are open enough to approach them with curiosity and humility.

Drawing on our tradition, Rabbi Maggie Wenig imagines God as an old woman, filled with the wisdom that “only the passage of time can teach:”

That one can survive the loss of a love; that one can feel secure even in the midst of an ever changing world; that there can be dignity in being alive even when every bone aches…We speak too rapidly to truly listen. We move too rapidly to feel what we touch. We form opinions too quickly to judge honestly. While God, God moves slowly and with intention. She sees everything there is to see, understands everything she hears, and touches all that lives.”

Now we understand why we were created to grow older: each added day of life, each new year makes us more like God – who is ever growing older. That must be the reason we are instructed to rise before the aged and see the grandeur in the faces of the old. We rise in their presence as we would rise in the presence of God, for in the faces of the old we see God’s face.”

Of course, it’s also worth noting that age doesn’t necessarily equal perspective. There are plenty of “elders” who claim authority just because they are the old guard. You know those guys. And perhaps there’s no better example of this than the intransigence of so many on what may be the most critical issue of our time – the welfare of the planet. Despite the invigoration from youth leadership like Greta Thunberg, this is an issue which is still ignored and underappreciated by the generation who has the least to lose, at the expense of those who have the most to lose.

In fact, our tradition is also aware of the hazard of automatically giving elders unchecked authority or status. The Talmud records the opinion that communal elders who do not protest against the transgressions of those vested with authority and power are judged for the very transgressions that they ignored. There’s no sitting back comfortably, escaping responsibility. Even as an elder, respect needs to be earned.

But we’re still missing something. Part of that 200-year-perspective that we so desperately need.

How are you living your life in deference to the people who built the first hundred years, to help you build it for the next hundred years?

We can’t do this on our own.

There’s a story that Rabbi Yochanan would make it his business to rise before every elder he saw – just like the Torah asks us to do. But when they walked by, he would exclaim: Kamah harpatkei adu alayhu d’hani! “How many adventures this person must have experienced!”

This reminds me of my own Bubbie Rachel.

In recent years, I’ve noticed that she has started talking more about death. She’s aware that there are fewer years ahead than those behind, and every now and then, she’ll make a casual reference to it. “I want you to say that about me at my funeral,” she shared with me once, after a toast I gave on her birthday. For the rest of us this was… unsettling. Who likes hearing someone they love speak about their death? But for Bubbie, it didn’t seem to carry as much negative weight. For her, I think it’s based in optimism and hope and gratitude.

Surely Rabbi Yochanan would have risen for her. She’s aware of how many adventures she’s experienced, and how it refines her perspective on being present for all of the goodness that her life still brings her.

And it’s taught me so much.

A few years ago, I was interning as a psychotherapy student at a hospital. It wasn’t unusual for me to be around people near the end of their lives, or people undergoing care for traumatic conditions. But on one particular Sunday, I had an immeasurably challenging day.

David, a cancer patient, had crashed, and I stood by while a team of ten doctors and nurses tried to resuscitate him. It was frenetic and disorienting. There were failures in communication – who was in charge, who was timing the administering of potentially life-saving medication – but medically, it was probably too late anyway, and they were unable to save his life. I watched helplessly while David died, alone, while his wife had left for the evening.

There was a standard debrief afterward, but it was a Sunday, and the staff was stretched thin, so they quickly hurried away. There was nothing for me to do but confront the stark reality of what had just happened.

That same day, I had made plans with my family for a visit to my Bubbie. My parents picked me up at the hospital after work. I remember them being particularly frustrated by the traffic that day. I sat in the back seat, incredulous: “how on earth can you be so angry at a bad driver, when I just saw this horrible thing happen!?” It felt like my world was out of sync.

I knew what would bring some comfort and alleviate the anvil-sized weight I was feeling on my chest: a hug from my Bubbie. It’s true that a grandmother’s hug can cure all ailments, but I had a specific reason why I wanted to talk to her about my hard day. She didn’t pretend that it wasn’t real; she didn’t avoid the messy reality. She’s the oldest person I know, and she has the robustness to see life with all of the broken, tragically beautiful perspective that her age bestows upon her.

I became less afraid of death that summer; less afraid of growing old. More aware of my own strength and responsibilities. I’m not sure I could have learned that on my own – not in class, from the doctors at the hospital, or even from my own parents. It was like one of the sacred rites for which our elders traditionally had been responsible, as noted by Dr. Atul Gawande.

We need to see life from this perspective.

We need to take part in these rights and rituals.

And you don’t necessarily need a grandparent to do that.

Dr. Karl Pillemer suggests: “Why not begin with an activity as old as the human race: asking the advice of the oldest people you know? Because older people have one thing that the rest of us do not: they have lived their lives. They have been where we haven’t.” They have been on an adventure. One that the rest of us need to give more thanks for.

And it’s reciprocal: as much as we should be learning from our elders how we can be living our lives, we should be ensuring that they still live the lives they want.

We have an obligation to approach our elders the same way we would anyone of inherent self-worth. We have a duty to our elders to ask them: what does life really mean to you? How can we build that life together – not separate from each other? What can we learn together?  How can we stand up and rise, together?

Why? Because our elders aren’t just people whom we’d rather ignore.

They are, in a way, reflections of God, herself.

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