Several weeks ago my wife, Chavi, and I attended the sad funeral of Mrs. Martha Melohn a”h. Besides being a dear friend of Chavi’s, Mrs. Melohn was the matriarch of a very well-known philanthropic family. This is not the place for a full-fledged eulogy of this remarkable woman, but I begin this article with reflections on a conversation I had with her just several months before her unfortunate demise.
The gist of the conversation was this: She had just read a column of mine in which I extolled the virtues of old age. I asserted that the Jewish community, in contrast to other communities, revered and respected older people. I maintained that we did not share the values of the so-called youth culture, which has shunted its elders to the margins of societal influence in favor of the younger generation.
Mrs. Melohn regularly read my articles and generally agreed with me. This time, however, she did not just disagree with me but, as she put it, “wished to protest vigorously.” She insisted that though there was a time, not that long ago, when we indeed sought the counsel of the aged among us, that was no longer true. She pointed to the many examples in her own experience when her opinions on various matters were listened to with feigned respect but then ultimately ignored.
She forced me to admit that with a few noteworthy exceptions, older people had decreasing influence on the direction in which our contemporary Orthodox Jewish community was headed.
I promised her I would write an article to try to correct this trend and that I would demonstrate the significant contributions that older people – even quite elderly people – could offer to the rest of us. I told her I would go so far as to maintain that we ignore the wisdom of our elders at our own peril.
I regret that I postponed writing this article until her untimely passing. But the subject still has tremendous relevance.
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Let us begin with no less a personage then our father Abraham. On the biblical verse, “And Abraham was old, advanced in age, and the Almighty blessed Abraham with everything” (Genesis 24:1), the Talmud comments, “Until Abraham there was no such thing as zikna, no such thing as old age” (Bava Metzia 87a).
What can this possibly mean? Did not all of Abraham’s ancestors live to an advanced old age, in most cases for many centuries? Were they immune to the natural physiological processes that are part and parcel of the human condition? Did their bodies not weaken? Did their memories never fail? Were they bereft of evidence that the end of their time on earth was drawing near? Was Abraham the first to experience all of these now universal phenomena?
One of the rabbis of a bygone generation, under whom I was privileged to study in his own advanced old age, Rabbi Nissan Telushkin, zt”l, suggests an answer to this question in his remarkable collection of sermons, HaTorah V’HaOlam (The Torah and the World).
Rabbi Telushkin explains that until Abraham, the world was materialistic and the primary activities were practical ones that allowed for physical survival. At that time, age was no advantage at all. Quite the contrary – what was necessary was the vigor and energy of youth.
When Abraham came on the scene, things changed. He successfully introduced the spiritual dimension to mankind. In this realm, the skills of youth were no longer the only skills necessary. To the extent that mankind became more spiritual, the skills of age became more and more important. Of course age existed before Abraham. But with his arrival on the scene, the advantages of age became recognized as crucial. Before Abraham, age was simply not a vital and necessary part of the human project. He was the first “old man,” because he was the first person to be revered as an essential leader in the human community.
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Rabbi Telushkin’s answer had satisfied me ever since I was a young rabbinical student. That is, until the residents of Beit Tovei Ha’Ir, a remarkable facility for the elderly in Jerusalem, taught me better.
Earlier this year I visited this marvelous home for people who do not think of themselves as old but as older than most. It was not the first time I was there, but having been impressed with it initially, I spent a long weekend there this time.
In one of my talks to the residents, I mentioned Rabbi Telushkin’s take on the nature of Abraham’s contribution as an old man to society. Many of the residents objected vehemently. They felt strongly that older people’s contributions were not at all limited to the spiritual realm. Quite the contrary, they insisted, they had much practical advice to offer.
I happen to have recorded the session, which was held just after a delicious Sunday brunch. There were no less than thirteen examples offered by the group of the down-to-earth objectives that they believe would be of great value to younger people, if those younger ones would just listen. I will not list all thirteen in this column, but here are some of them:
The first bit of wisdom, in which everyone present concurred, was the unpredictability of life. We make plans, both long-range and short-range, but we had better anticipate that those plans will, in all likelihood, go awry. Several referred to the passage in Psalms that declares “man’s footsteps are directed by the Almighty.” Being prepared to change one’s objectives, to abandon plans and develop new ones, is the essential component of a successful life. This, they insisted, was not a spiritual guideline but a very pragmatic one of which younger people often are oblivious.
The supreme importance of friends and family was the second bit of wisdom on which the group almost unanimously concurred. They all expressed regrets over the many times in their own lives when they saw their business or their career as a priority and failed to spend quality time with family. They told many stories of friendships that had gone neglected for decades only to be reclaimed much later in life, often too late to reestablish meaningful relationships.
From there they moved on to a third recommendation they would give to younger people. That was the lesson of “Ayzehu ashir? Hasameach b’chelko – Who is wealthy? He who is content with his lot.” They stressed that this was not just sound spiritual advice but good practical advice as well. As one resident put it, “I discovered that it makes much more sense to spend time appreciating one’s blessings rather than planning incessantly for future achievements.”
They had a wide array of other lessons to teach: the importance of self-sacrifice, the need to be tolerant of fellow Jews of every background, the vital importance of the state of Israel, the appreciation of the horror of the Holocaust and all that was lost in it, and the evils of many aspects of modern technology.
One wise fellow would not let the session end until he was allowed to express how he learned the importance of “just showing up,” and that what one said at critical moments did not matter as much as just “being there.”
Most impressively, several residents carried with them copies of things they had read, either in secular or sacred literature, which they found meaningful and useful and which they would like to pass on to younger people.
One woman chose to convey what she termed “the lifelong search for the ghosts of our past.” By this, she meant that in some almost mystical fashion we continue a relationship with important individuals who are long dead. She drew from her purse a notebook that contained many quotations illustrating the point. This is one of them:
“…When my mother was dying in the hospital, when she knew her end was coming, it was not me she looked up to, but to someone who stood behind me: her own mother, the ghost of her mother. To me, my mother was an old woman, but to herself, she was still a child calling to her mother to hold her hand and help her. And her own mother, in the secret life we do not see, was a child too. I come from a line of children without end.” (From J.M. Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K., p. 117)
The other residents enthusiastically applauded her when she read this quotation. As one man put it, “It is not only that we live all of our lives with our ghosts; it is also that however old we are, however long we live, in some way we still feel like children.” Just this one session in the breakfast room of Beit Tovei Ha’Ir, with the sunlight of Jerusalem shining through the high windows, was sufficient to convince me that in this group of people, not one of whom was less than eighty years old, was contained vast wisdom, applicable to young and old alike.
There was another piece of wisdom the residents felt would be important to convey to younger people. As one of them put it, “It took us time to learn how little you can judge a person by external appearances. Just noting a person’s manner of dress, or his or her status or institutional affiliation, tells you nothing about a person. You can’t tell anything about a person by the chitzonius, the externals. That’s a lesson we’ve all learned over and over again, and young people would be spared a lot of grief if they would learn this lesson early on in their lives.”
One of the oldest gentlemen in the group was a noted professor of psychology who had been a mentor of mine at the very beginning of my own career in psychology. Like many of the others he had a notebook from which to read one of his favorite quotations, but first he made this pronouncement:
“Do not think for a moment that we older people always knew the teachings we have been sharing with you. Most of us entered old age with an entirely different set of beliefs, which we had to modify in order to survive, and thrive, in our golden years. The psychologist Carl Jung, whose attitude toward Jewish people was always troublesome to me, but who had a lot of insight into the process of aging, had something to say which I would like to read to this group.”
Like many groups of elders, especially Jewish elders, the group hardly ever sat in silence while others had the floor. There were always interruptions and questions, sometimes shouted quite loudly. Somehow, though, this distinguished gentleman was able to hold the rapt attention of all in the room as he read the following quote from Carl Jung with dramatic flair:
“Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning. For what was great in the morning will be little in evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”
Everyone in the group vigorously nodded with approval as the old professor read these words. In various ways, and indeed in several languages, they provided examples of some of the “truths and ideals” they felt they had to surrender as they entered their own “evenings of life.”
One man, dressed in chassidic garb, said reflectively, “I always thought I knew what was right and wrong with absolute certainty. I gradually learned that that absolute certainty was not only mistaken, but harmful to me in many ways, including in my religious life. I now know” – and here he resorted to Yiddish – “az der ganze emes ligt nischt bei keener,” and immediately translated for those who needed translation, “no one possesses the entire truth.”
The discussion concluded with several people giving examples of how they learned to modify the certainty with which they had previously clung to their “truths and ideals” in this very facility, as they lived closely together with so many others of different backgrounds and belief systems.
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Several weeks ago, in the very first verse of the Torah portion of Shemini, we read, “And it came to pass on the eighth day that Moses called out to Aaron and to his sons and to the elders of Israel.”
Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai refuses to let that last phrase pass by without comment. This great sage, famed and revered for his mystical insights, is impressed by the role that the elders of the community play, not only in this verse, but throughout the Torah. He remarks:
We find that the Holy One Blessed be He bestowed honor upon the elderly very frequently.
At the burning bush: “Go and gather the elders of Israel”; In Egypt: “And you and the elders of Israel shall approach…’; At Sinai: Up to the Lord, you…and seventy of the elders of Israel”; In the desert: “Gather unto me seventy men from among the elders of Israel”; At the tent of meeting: “Moses called upon… The elders of Israel”; And in the messianic future the Holy One will again bestow honor upon the elderly, as it is written (Isaiah 24:23), “The Moon will be embarrassed and the Sun ashamed, for the Lord of Hosts will Himself reign upon Mount Zion and Jerusalem, and His elders will be granted honor.” – Midrash Rabbah Leviticus 11:8
Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai is emphasizing something that is fundamental to Judaism – something that Mrs. Martha Melohn articulated to me just weeks before she passed away. Not only should the elderly be granted kavod, respect; they must also be taken seriously. They have many values to teach us, both practically and spiritually. They represent, as did she, an indispensable resource for the community and for its leadership.
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