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.