Sacred Aging - Rosh HaShanah Day Two

Rabbi Greg Weisman

 

An old man going a lone highway,
Came at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.

The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim, near,
“You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again will pass this way;
You've crossed the chasm, deep and wide-
Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head:
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”

These words from Will Allen Dromgoole's poem “The Bridge Builder,” speak of that age-old responsibility between the generations. The old man, full of virtue and full of vigor, spends his latter days in life laboring not just for his own benefit, but for all of those who will come after, who will approach that chasm and need to cross. We applaud him through the words of “The Bridge Builder,” extolling him for his selfless act and his forward thinking. 

I first heard the words of “The Bridge Builder” as a 10 year old boy at a summer camp that was in its 89th year of existence. Sitting in a rec hall that was about five times as old as I was and hearing those words, the message rang loud and clear: others have done for you to give you this opportunity; what are you going to do for those behind you? I carry that message, and the many others I learned at camp, with me every day. 

It’s no secret that I love camp. When people ask me how I became the man I am, the rabbi I am, the husband and father that I am, without skipping a beat I say, “camp.” At camp I learned to be myself, to be humble yet spirited, to strive for success and learn through failure. And at camp, even at a young age, I got to be an elder. When I was 22 years old, I got to share the wisdom I had gleaned through my experiences with younger counselors and with campers struggling through their first summers away. When I was 25, I supervised counselors as they developed their own counseling style and collected their own wisdom. Even now, I look forward to the two weeks I get to spend up at camp, learning from great rabbinic colleagues, hanging out with kids and young adults from temple, and guiding the next generation of great camp counselors. It’s a little odd to think of it like this, but when I go back to camp (and use a bit of my vacation time to do it), I feel like the bridge builder, an old man, an elder, and it makes me feel good.

The elderly used to sit at a seat of honor in our society. Even that word, elderly, implied a sense of accomplishment, of being an elder. It is the elders of Israel who are second only to Moses and Aaron in the governance of our people in Torah. Pirkei Avot teaches to sit at the feet of the sages, those wizened through years of study and experience, and drink up their words thirstily. Proverbs describes a head of gray hair as a crown of glory, attained through a life of righteousness. But all too often in 2015, those who have seen and done are dismissed by those who have only learned about it, who armed with a gadget and a new way to crunch numbers think that they have a deeper understanding of the complexities of our world. Chatanu l’fneichem- my generation and I have sinned before you.

The reality is that as we get older, life gets more difficult. This process begins not at 40, or 50, or 70, but much, much sooner. When we become bar or bat mitzvah, graduate from school, get our first job, get married, and have children, we complicate our lives, make them more challenging and, hopefully, more meaningful. But our culture has taught us to fear old age. We fear the changes to our body, the perceived loss of beauty and vigor, the graying and thinning of our hair (and maybe the appearance of hair in new places), and most recently, a world that is changing so quickly technologically that someone who is not working with it can struggle to keep up. When it used to be that a grandfather would take out his grandson and teach him how to use a fishing rod, now a granddaughter is teaching her grandfather how to use a cell phone. It’s great that she can do that and that he can learn from his granddaughter, but I fear that we grandchildren are not learning enough from our grandparents.

It’s time to reclaim elderhood, to embrace it, despite of and because of all of its challenges. We have let the unrelenting waves of technology and popular culture come crashing down upon us, washing away a couple millennia of respect and celebration for those who have achieved the truly remarkable accomplishment of surviving decades and decades despite the very real threats that our world presents us every day, and have the insight to tell us from the other side how to navigate.

What is an elder? An elder is someone who has a knowledge of self, who is confident in her vision of the world and challenges herself to keep learning, someone who desires to share her learnings with those around her. In the words of the gerontologist Barry Barkan, “an elder is a person who is still growing, still a learner, still with potential and whose life continues to have within it promise for, and connection to, the future. An elder is still in pursuit of joy, happiness, and pleasure, and her or his birthright to these remain intact. Moreover an elder is a person who deserves respect and honor and those whose work it is to synthesize wisdom from long time life experience and formulate this into a legacy for future generations.”

An elder is something that we should all aspire to be. An elder is someone who sees the benefit in being older, who embraces the aging process, instilling it with a spiritual grounding. An elder is something that, to a certain degree, we can be regardless of our age, as long as we think of the process of getting older and of learning from our experiencing the world as a way to deepen who we are and a source of guidance for the future. Certainly older elders would have even more to share than younger, but the 22 year old camp counselor serves as an elder to the 9 year old camper, just as the 45 year old camp director serves as an elder to the counselor, and the 65 year old alumnus serves as an elder to the director. In the few years that I have had the privilege to serve you as your rabbi, you have become my elders. You have shared with me the wisdom of your years. You have shared with me the pains you have experienced that come with aging, and invited me to celebrate with you as you and members of your families have reached important milestones. And I have sought, with the deepest sense of humility, to be an elder in this community as well, and I have felt welcomed. Although I may be short on years, together we have considered and will continue to consider the glorious challenge that life has to offer us. Each day together we advance in years, and I feel myself wanting to support you just as you support me.

To be an elder is to be what I will call “age-positive.” Being age-positive means that we challenge ourselves to be open and honest about what we are facing while we age, to continue the process of learning as our years pass, and to seek satisfaction in our lives both in the here and now and throughout the course of our lives.

Building a legacy, finding ways to cultivate and leave gifts for those around us and those that will come after us is a lifelong endeavor, not something that should be reserved for the old man in our story. And more importantly, old age is not simply about leaving gifts for those who come after. Our latter stages in life are about reaping the rewards of what we have sown during our lives. They are about taking the gift of time to enjoy the world around us, hopefully without having to worry as much about our earthly concerns like the mortgage or our rent, where our next meal is coming from, and whether I have a shirt on my back. To use a metaphor from Zalman-Schachter Shalomi and Ronald Miller,  our later years are the Shabbat of our lives. We work and we work and we work from youth to age, for the first six days of the metaphorical week that is our lives, and then we get to take a Shabbos to simply enjoy the fruits of our labors, just as God took the seventh day to rest and to bask in the glory that was Creation. 

But it is not always that easy. We are challenged by the events in our lives and the world around us. Life gives us lemons, throws us curveballs. If the Shabbos model of aging suggests that by the time the sun sets on the Friday afternoon of our lives that we have everything we need to survive the last seventh of our life, that all our needs are met and will be met going forward, sadly, as many of us know, that is simply not the case. 

Humans have always had to deal with death and loss, with illness of ourselves and those near to us. But some of the benefits that the 20th and 21st Centuries have brought have also brought side-effects that were unexpected. The good news is that as a species we are living longer…yay! We can see and do more, we can travel more easily, eat more safely, and survive illness more successfully than ever before. But what that means is that where, in previous generations, most people had lost their parents before their children were grown, now we have older parents, older grandparents, and what has come to be known as the sandwich generation: people who are taking care of their declining parents and their still growing children (and in this economy, often they are adult children). 

This generation is made up of people who are at the height of their careers and yet have not achieved the stability of home and social life to match it. The successful attorney, who struggled as it was to get to soccer practice and dance recitals and to provide nutritious meals and to have a social life of her own, whose father now needs an increasing level of caregiving both from professionals and from her. It used to be that when she got a phone call from her son’s school during the day, her heart skipped a beat. Now, when her dad’s name shows up on the caller ID, there is a moment of panic…what happened now? And things are no picnic for her father either. A lifetime of success, a good career, comfortable financial situation, a loving and supportive family, can all crumble away with the diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s or the shock of an unexpected stroke.

We have to call out, to name, our anxieties and our fears about the life that lies ahead, so that we can talk about them, or at least think about them, in a constructive way. When we were younger, in school or the beginnings of our career, we would be challenged with new ideas, new principles or new techniques, and our responsibility was to learn them. We know how to handle challenges: we think about what is causing them, what might be done to address them, and ultimately we set a course to confront them. Aging is one of those challenges.

So we keep learning. Right here, right now, we are learning. When we come together to worship, to revisit the ancient liturgical writings of our people, we are reminding ourselves of the wisdom that the elders of previous generations left to us, the fruit of the trees they planted. There are those in our world today who have spent their lives learning about the aging process. Just a few weeks ago the world said goodbye to the great Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who studied, among other things the affect of time on the human brain and was very outspoken about his own aging process. On his 80th birthday, he wrote a famous piece for the New York Times, “The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding).” In it, he wrote that at age 80 he feels “not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”  His insight, there life can get more meaningful as we age- if we take advantage of the oppoorunities we offer- is sage.

Here at the Temple, we want to support everyone in their aging process, in their advance toward and into elderhood. This December, we will have the privilege to welcome Rabbi Richard Address to Temple Beth El. Rabbi Address has made his career in the Reform movement focusing on Jewish family concerns and Jewish Sacred Aging, a project that has been responsible for creating awareness and resources for congregations on the implication of the emerging longevity revolution with growing emphasis on the aging of the baby boom generation. He will teach us from the wisdom he has gleaned over his years, challenging us to keep learning about ourselves, our own aging processes, and how as a spiritual community we can create an environment where we can explore for ourselves the challenges of aging, seek support and comfort from those around us, and ultimately, engage healthfully with our emerging elderhood. After his visit, we will continue that conversation through a Sacred Aging Inititaitve, which will develop learning and spiritual experiences to help us all engage with our aging and eldering processes. If you would like to be actively engaged with this process, please let me know after the holidays; we would love your wisdom.

The goal of all of this, of the idea of being an elder, of age-positivity, is a higher sense of satisfaction in our lives. There is a famous Hasidic story about Reb Zusia, who came to his disciples in a sense of terror and panic. His students asked about it, and he said that he had had a vision wherein the angels of heaven asked him about his life. Zusia, his students responded, you’ve been a great man, generous, kind, wise…what possible question could they ask you?  He explained that they wouldn’t ask him why he was not more like Moses, and they wouldn’t ask him why he was not more like Joshua. No, they will say to me, “Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.” They will say, “Zusia, why weren't you Zusia?” 

We all want to look back at the end of our lives and feel proud and accomplished. We will all have regrets, things we wish we had done and things we wish we hadn’t done. But as our years unfold, the challenges that later years present can often get in the way of the continuation of the success we built over the years. Being age-positive, recognizing the sacredness that our lives have at all ages, and embracing ourselves as holy beings deserving of care can help us make our latter years the Shabbat of our lives, meaningful, fulfilling, and most importantly, joyous.

Shana tova.

  1) Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, Time Warner Books: New York, 1997, 5.
  2) Oliver Sacks, “The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding),” The New York Times, 7/6/2013. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/opinion/sunday/the-joy-of-old-age-no-kidding.html on 9/11/15.