5777 Yom Kippur – Getting Old
When I was eight years old and in the third grade, my world changed in what you might think of as a small way. But it changed forever. I complained to my classmates that the teacher, Mrs. Perkins, really should write her letters bigger on the board because no normal person could possibly read anything that small. The other kids were puzzled. It seemed OK to them. This started a process that led to my getting glasses. It turned out that my vision was something like 20/400 in each eye, which made me legally blind, and began a lifetime of wearing corrective lenses.
And I certainly wasn’t alone. If someonome in the back of the classroom called out, “Hey you with the glasses!” well over half the class would turn around. And the percentage only got higher as I got older.
Fast forward to about two years ago, when I got new insight into this trajectory of increasing company with age. I wasn’t thinking about my glasses so much when the pain first started in my leg. Eventually an MRI revealed that I actually had a condition, The medical terms for it are a mouthful, but one of the side effects is sciatica.
Now I don’t say this to get pity or advice. There’s a sermonic point or two coming, I promise. The pain is largely under control, and my goal is two-fold. I’m trying to avoid surgery, especially after the neurosurgeon told me what it would entail, and that there are no guarantees it would improve the situation; and I’m trying to avoid opiates. The whole experience has caused me to think about a few things, and I wanted to share them with you.
For one thing, I considered my own mortality.
Now you would think that in my job, where visiting the sick and conducting funerals are regular activities, that I would have thought a lot of this through already. But my mind just had not gone there in any real way before. Not that I haven’t known my share of loss. Moreover, in rabbinical school, we had to write our own eulogies. However, it was more a writing exercise for me than a real consideration for what might be in store.
But now, I began to relate to those in pain. All my life, in all those places I called home over the years, there have been ancient half empty bottles of aspirin and Tylenol. I could never figure out who was buying those huge bottles of Ibuprofen and acetaminophen at Costco. Guess what? Now it’s me. And lots of other people. I can’t tell you how many people, from new acquaintances to congregants to close relatives, have told me that they’ve experienced sciatica. And they tell me what worked for them, and how it went away after a while. I’ve done some research and I know that the kind of sciatica I’ve got is structural, and it doesn’t just go away after a while. But I really do appreciate the concern and thank everyone wanting to help for all the advice. Some of it has been quite helpful and every anecdotal cure is worth trying, even if it’s not quite the same thing you had.
Through all the medicines and herbs and exercise and acupuncture and chiropractic visits, the one thing that keeps coming back to me is, I’m getting old. And like I’ve always heard, while it beats the alternative, it’s not for the faint of heart.
Now true, age can be not much more than a number, and a lot of staying young involves an attitude adjustment. You’re as young as you feel and all that. But some things are irreversible and incontrovertible. And so, since we’re all advancing in age, my question is, how do we want to do that? Yom Kippur, a sort of a rehearsal for our deaths, as we dress in shroud-white and follow certain mourning customs throughout the fast, is a good time to think about it. Judgement Day is here. What does this tradition we call Judaism have to say about the one thing we all must face? And I don’t mean taxes. Apparently some people can now avoid those for years on end. But you can’t cheat death. Believe me.
On the old Superman TV show, every episode introduced the man of steel’s “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man.” When I was a kid, I didn’t know what “mortal” meant. I thought, from the context that it meant ordinary people who did not possess Superman’s powers and abilities. I was almost a teen when I looked up “mortal” in the dictionary. It means that you die.
Sure, I knew that a lot people do. But for years it was like in Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, which I read in college. Tolstoy says of his main character, “The syllogism that he had studied...Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefor Caius is mortal, had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself.”
That was then. In getting in touch with mortality now, I began to look at some questions: What do I want? How do I want to live out my days? If I encounter a risky medical procedure, how do I judge the risk? If I’ll be able to walk the dog again, is that be enough to justify having the surgery? Or will it leave me suffering more than before the procedure?
There are more than a couple of Jewish approaches. Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”
Lord Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks sums up a more traditional Jewish perspective, writing “… we defeat death, not by living forever but by living by values that live forever; by doing deeds and creating blessings that will live on after us, and by attaching ourselves in the midst of time to Gd who lives beyond time, “the King – the living everlasting Gd.”
I don’t know if I can live up to that standard. But I’ve seen enough of the wisdom of our tradition to know that it can help.
When the rabbis we call the Sages set up the schedule of weekly Torah readings, they paired a reading from the Prophets called the Haftarah with each parsha. There’s a curious pairing in the Torah reading called Chaye Sarah, and the haftarah that’s paired with it. We’ll get to it in a few weeks. In it, Sarah has died, and Abraham goes on a mission. He secures a burial plot for not only her, but for himself as well, and then goes about the business of arranging for a wife for his son, Isaac. He’s planning for the future, a future he won’t see. He’s preparing a legacy.
The haftarah describes the aged King David. He is old and cold, and even Abishag the Shunamite cannot warm him up. The plans that he shares with his son Solomon are petty and mean: who should be rewarded and who should feel his revenge. He gives no clear instructions about succession; a recipe for trouble.
The Rabbis put these two texts together to highlight the contrast, so that we’ll follow the example of Abraham and not David.
These Rabbis go on record in the Mishnah and Talmud about the ravages of age. They detail the ailments of the various sages. It isn’t pretty. But the general thrust is that it’s still a privilege to live a long life, as long as that life has some purpose. Aging is seen as a reward for a righteous life. The Talmud lists our responsibilities to the elderly: not contradicting their words, not sitting in their chair, or standing in their presence; “lifney seyvah takum,” as it says in the buses in Israel. We owe them respect. Sounds pretty obvious, but apparently it needed to be spelled out then too.
The consequences of not respecting elders appear to be dead serious. When King Solomon died, his son Rehoboam did not consult the elders and listened to his younger peers instead. So he was far harsher than his father had been to the people. As a result, ten of the tribes would not accept him as king, and this led to the separation of the northern territory that would be called Israel, and the dissolution of the united kingdom that his grandfather David had fought to unite.
We equate old age with wisdom. Even the elderly who are uneducated or not-so-righteous are to be given honor by default. The idea is that we are worthy, even if we are broken. The broken fragments of the original tablets bearing the Ten Commandments were placed in the Ark with the newer, unbroken ones, to show the value of the old and broken along the new and whole.
Being old does not have to mean being set in one’s ways. It says in the Midrash on the book of Ruth, “A person may act wickedly in his youth, yet in his old age he may perform good deeds.” We can change even as we age. What we keep is perspective. I can’t tell you how many times I play the tape in my head about mistakes I made 40 or even 50 years ago. I still hope to learn from my mistakes.
I’ve learned a lot this year. One of the best books I found on end of life issues is called Being Mortal by the Indian physician Atul Gawande. He talks about how, when he was a medical student, his class discussed the Tolstoy classic I quoted earlier, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s about a middle-aged bureaucrat who contracts an unidentifiable but terminal illness. None of the medical students who read it, including Gawande, focused on what Ivan Ilyich was going through. They all thought that if he had come to them today, they could have saved him, because the state of medicine is so much better now. They saw the job of the doctor as saving lives, not empathizing with sick people. It was only when the time came to treat his first aging and dying patient that it hit Gawande how unprepared he was.
The book gives many examples of people in their last stages of life. Dr. Gawande came to realize more and more that his job was not just to sum up what was wrong with a patient, but also to find out what that patient wants and how medicine can help facilitate a meaningful life for as long as possible.
His story is most poignant when he has to deal with his own dying father. He asks the questions he has learned to ask: What are your biggest fears and concerns? Pain? Loss of dignity? How others will cope afterward? What goals are most important to you? Making it to a wedding? Playing music again? What trade-offs are you willing to make, and which are you not? In the end, these are far more important questions than what is usually asked. These are the questions that allow patients an active role in helping their doctors and families to frame a strategy, a path to follow, to make the last trip a good one.
Those of you who were here for Selichot services were exposed to something similar by Cantor Fran Chalin from Vitas Healthcare and the Aging with Dignity organization, in a workbook called “Five Wishes,” things to be thought of before we cannot articulate our wishes. Who is the person I want to make health care decisions for me when I can’t make them for myself? What kind of medical treatment do I want, or don’t want? How comfortable do I want to be? How do I want people to treat me? And what do I want my loved ones to know? Dr. Gawande’s questions and the wishes from Aging with Dignity are certainly not mutually exclusive.
We all want a good end. Dr. Gawande writes, “For human beings life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens.” He compares a life to a football game where the team a fan is rooting for plays an excellent game right up to the end, when a fumble leads to a loss. “Why would a football fan let a few flubbed minutes at the end of the game ruin three hours of bliss?” he asks. “Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.”
Dr. Gawende found a vocation helping people write the best possible endings to their stories. His father presided from the head of the table at dinner parties, right up to near the end. He made plans for a new building at the college in India where he had become a doctor. He sent out emails, watched movies with his wife, gushed over his daughter’s fiancé, and in general found moments worth living for. And when the time finally came, he was surrounded by his family. I can almost hear the rabbis from the Talmud giving their approval.
Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the “dying role” and its importance to people as life approaches the end. People want to share memories, pass on keepsakes, impart wisdom, settle relationships, establish their legacies, make peace with Gd, and ensure that those who are left behind will be okay. They want to end their stories on their own terms.
And what until then? The great Rabbi Bob Dylan wrote a song you may know.
“May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young.”
Rav Zimmerman isn’t saying you should be childish or naive your entire life. Knowing how to give back as well as receive graciously in fact takes some learning and maturity. He is saying, though, that as long as you have an attitude of wonder and openness, you get to call yourself “young.”
And of course the company of the actual young can help. According to Rabbi Dayle Friedman, director of chaplaincy at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, “Older persons have unique contributions to make to the young.” She gives the example of Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi. When Ruth has a child, he is cared for by Naomi and is considered by all to be Naomi’s son too. The women of the village say, “He shall be to you a restorer of your life, and is a nourisher of your old age.” You don’t have to go to the Bible for this: on any given Shabbat, I see people sharing pictures of their grandchildren at Kiddush after services, on their cell-phones when they think I’m not looking. And many in this congregation are fortunate enough to share pictures of their great-grandchildren as well.
Looking toward the future, which our children and grandchildren embody, gives us that star to steer our ship by. It gives us purpose. The Talmud tells of Honi the Circle-Maker, who was planting a carob tree even though he was already 70 years old. I’m sure you’ve heard the story. The odds of seeing the fruit of that tree were miniscule. Asked by a Roman centurian why he would bother, he said, “Others planted trees they would not see bloom for me. I’m doing it for the next generation.”
It’s that kind of purpose, that sense of obligation to the future, that can inspire someone like Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great poet philosopher of the Jewish Theological Seminary, to say, “It is through being obligated that one truly exists.” That obligation to leave a better world for those who come after us is what the mitzvot, the commandments are all about. It’s what can motivate us. A sense of purpose. Not necessarily a singular one, as we’ll hear.
Gerontologist Karl Pillemer thought he had learned all about aging in his 25 years in the field. He conducted research using longitudinal data sets and sophisticated statistical analyses. He developed and evaluated programs to improve older people’s lives He taught courses and gave lectures on aging. He opined on policy issues affecting our aging society. But then he realized that the one thing he never did, was talk to old people.
In beginning his journey, he met with a group of college seniors at an Ivy League campus to find out what these “emerging adults” would want to know about work and careers from their elders. A future money manager in a jacket and tie asked the first question. The doctor was shocked. The young man didn’t ask about strategies to get ahead or how to score the perfect job. He said, “What really worries me is, do I need a purpose in life? All the books say so, but I guess I don’t have one. Is there something wrong with me? How would I get one?”
He wasn’t an outlier. It turned out that the others too were driven to excel, but worried. All their sources—books on how to succeed, motivational speakers—told them it was crucial to have a singular overriding purpose to their lives. But they didn’t feel they had one.
So when he began talking to elders, the doctor asked about purpose. And the collective wisdom among the elders was…relax. You’re likely to have a number of purposes as you progress through life, they said. Their advice to the young was to stay flexible.
The elders recommend reshaping the quest for a purpose, thinking instead of looking for a general direction and pursuing that energetically and courageously. But how? Well, some of the ideas can help whether you’re starting out in life, winding down, or somewhere in between. One tool for finding direction is interviewing your future self. That’s not easy. How do you know who you’ll be in ten or twenty years? Next year? Next month? But it’s worthwhile to stretch your imagination and pose some questions to the future you.
If you can’t do that, the next best thing is to interview an older person who embodies the “self” you would like to be. Dr. Pillemer got this idea from a successful serial entrepreneur named Barry Fine, from New York’s Lower East Side. At 89 he was still managing a business. His advice was to “find a maven.” You probably know this Yiddish word for “expert,” but did you know that it comes from the Hebrew “mei’veen,” meaning “understands”? A maven understands because he or she has experience. In his many business adventures, Mr. Fine said, when he had a maven, he succeeded, and when he didn’t, he didn’t.
To the young person the advice is “find a maven.” To the elder person, the goal is to be a maven. Mister Rogers used to ask, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Now we can ask, “Won’t you be my maven?”
One thing Dr. Pillemer got of lasting value from a maven he cultivated was the answer to the question, should he write a book? Not an academic article but a popular book based on what he was finding out. Would he regret it when he was older if he didn’t write it? And the answer the 93-year -old maven gave him was a single word: yes. Yes, you will regret it if you do not take this leap, as the maven himself regretted opportunities in his own life he had let slip by. By the time I read this story, Dr. Pillemer had conducted 2,000 interviews and published two books, and is not disappointed. The first book was 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. He’s since written a sequel.
So understand other people in order to understand yourself. Learn from others, whether they are living or dead, real or fictional. Have many purposes. They’ll change as life plays out. The constant should be the values that you hold. Your purpose may be to plant for the next generation, as Honi did. Maybe not literally. But many of you tell me that the most important thing in life is family. That that is what gives you a sense of purpose. That works. Within such an overarching sense of purpose, though, how do you express it, one way then and another way now? What you model; how you plan and when you act; the arrangements you make are your legacy, just as it was for Abraham.
If I may be so bold, let me suggest that your list of goals and purposes include the study of the wisdom of your tradition. It will be here for you when all else fails and it may inspire others; perhaps now; perhaps only far in the future when your descendants look back.
Tradition would have us remain youthful by taking on new observances instead of sticking to what’s familiar. When we become Bar or Bat Mitzvah we begin to take on the mantle of the commandments. There is no age when we’re required to stop. Like many other things, we may not be able to do mitzvot the way we used to. We might no longer be able to actually put up a sukkah of our own, for example, but we can probably get to one. The commandment is to sit in a sukkah, not to put one up.
We do what we can on a sliding scale, as it were. The Amidah is the long prayer we say standing up. But maybe we have to sit. And if we can’t say the prayers out loud, we can say them to ourselves. When you do what you can, it counts.
I started this talk by letting you know some of the ways I could tell I was getting old. I need glasses because I’m blind. I use a cane because I’m lame. But I really hope that I don’t put the crowning touch on my physical losses by being deaf to your concerns. I’m here for you, as we all grow older, and I hope, wiser.
Onward and upward
Gamar Khatimah Tovah