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What Old Folks Can Teach Us

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

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.

* * * * *

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:

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