ON HIGH HOLIDAYS we traditionally chant: “Al tasheicheni l’et ziknah”- “Do not cast me into old age” (Psalm 71:9). My dear teacher, Rabbi Abraham Twerski was healthy until he was 85. He is now over 87 and struggling with pain and physical limitations. He explained that the line of liturgy means, “O G-d, do not bring my decline suddenly. Let me adjust to the changes as they proceed.” From what I have seen, the final years are so often difficult both for the individual and loved ones. I particularly fear mental decline, which I have witnessed in others. So what do we do?
A man came to see me dealing with depression. He had retired the previous year and for the past six months had struggled with a chronic illness that reduced his mobility. He said, “I was healthy, I was healthy, I was healthy, and then I was not.” His words penetrated. I then knew even more personally that we need to enjoy our health while we can. Toward that end, my wife and I spent last year on sabbatical traveling, including trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving for the first time, and immersing in diverse cultures. Our travel was exhilarating and exhausting and made all the more sweet by the knowledge that we would not be able to physically do what we were doing in another ten years.
When I recently looked over the sabbatical photos, I delighted in all the memories. I also appreciated the gap between the actual experiences and retrospect. Travel is often uncomfortable and fatigue and hassle are part of the package, particularly when the goal is discovery rather than relaxation. And so, I anticipate that when looking over our entire lives frustrations will fade and we will say, “Wow, so much goodness. I wish that I had enjoyed it more when I was in mid-stride.” As the Biblical sage Kohelet teaches in recounting his own search for the good life, having tasted wealth and power: “Enjoy happiness with a partner you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun- all your fleeting days. For that alone is what you can get out of life and out of the means you acquire under the sun. Whatever is in your power to do, do with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:9-10).
Whether we are fortunate to live long lives or not, there is usually no easy exit. The final years are usually marked by physical decline. For those who are older than us, we have a duty to honor them. In the words of the Torah: “You should rise before the elderly and honor the aged” (Leviticus 19:32). As we will wish to be honored for our essential goodness and the wisdom of our life experiences regardless of our current utility so we need to pay respect to those who are our elders. The rabbis of the Talmud share that the holy ark contained two sets of the tablets, one whole and the other shattered by Moses (Bava Batra 14b), conveying that those whose bodies are broken have a revered place alongside the more physically complete for both are essentially holy.
Aging gracefully is at the core of our prayers. My beloved mother would say, “We are all here for a visit. Nothing lasts forever.” What we have now is precious because it is limited. Let us enjoy each day and let us respectfully learn from the elderly in our midst how to value our limited years.
Rabbi Spitz is a caring mentor to his congregants at Congregation B’nai Israel, a scholar. He lives in Tustin, California with his wife, Linda; they are the parents of Joseph, Jonathan and Anna Rose.