For the past few months I have been doing chaplaincy work for a local hospice. Two gentlemen that I regularly visit stand out in particular because of their sharp minds, zest for living life, optimism, and yes, current age. One man, age 105 was pleased to show me the Happy Birthday letter that he received from President and Michelle Obama on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Every time I visited he relished the opportunity to share fascinating vignettes from his life.
Just last week I visited another man who celebrated his 106th birthday a few days ago. Each time I visit he recounts his life, always beginning with his childhood, his attaining American citizenship, his 50 year marriage to the love of his life, and his father’s somewhat strained relationship with Winston Churchill as well as his business association with none other than Mahatma Gandhi. Although he has no biological children, his nephew and nieces have organized a dinner party in celebration of his birthday, which will include all his favorite foods. These days he suffers from a touch of arthritis and is admittedly hard of hearing, but whenever I see him he greets me with a broad smile and tells me how much he enjoys living each day to its fullest. He remains interested in the arts, taking in line dancing, attending symphony concerts, and taking advantage of in-house lectures at the assisted living facility where he resides. Before the election, when I asked him if he planned to vote for the President of the United States, he responded enthusiastically that indeed he was. He looked forward to taking the bus to the polling center so that he could cast his vote in person, rather than by mail.
Current longevity rates are unprecedented. Americans are living longer than ever before, with increasing numbers of people living into their eighties, nineties and even their hundreds. Active late adulthood offers abundant opportunities for discovery and creativity for those who are endowed with good health. Jewish tradition has always emphasized that long healthy years are indeed a blessing granted by God. I have always been amazed that the Bible lists long life as the reward for fulfilling three of God’s commandments: honoring parents (Exodus 20:12), sending a mother bird away from the nest before capturing her young (Deuteronomy 22:7), and using honest weights in business dealings. (Deuteronomy 25:15). What these injunctions have in common is that each highlights the importance of righteousness and compassion in all of our daily interactions – within our families, in commerce and even with regard to the nature and the environment. The ancient rabbis expanded the criteria for attaining a long life to a far more demanding list of ethical behaviors including: showing patience, never rejoicing in one’s neighbor’s shame, and never calling a person by a name that might embarrass him/her.
Attaining 120 years with undiminished abilities has come to be considered the ideal life span because according to the Torah Moses reached that age with “his eyes undimmed and his vigor unabated.” (Deuteronomy 34:7) In Jewish tradition, the blessing of “120 years” is frequently offered to people on their birthdays.
Throughout history, the Jewish people have paid particular attention to the welfare of the aged. The book of Leviticus (19:32) commands, “You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old person.” The first words of this verse appear on signs at the front of Israeli buses to remind passengers to offer their seats to the elderly. In numerous Biblical passages it is the elders who are the wise ones, repositories of knowledge and the judges of the people. In biblical times, people turned to the elders for life advice. Unfortunately, all-too-often, nowadays, old people are perceived as socially, psychologically and physically restricted and deteriorated. As a result, they are too often isolated and their skills and wisdom are devaluated. In contrast, our High Holy Day liturgy enjoins “do not forsake me in old age,” and the Bratslaver Rebbe reminds us that “the prosperity of a country is in accordance with its treatment of the elderly.” That is why it is so gratifying and important to see the development of programs such as Better Together, a national initiative that brings together teens and seniors to foster ongoing intergenerational relationships and to build concern for and appreciation of seniors in the teens.
Each visit with my amazing senior friends reinforces my appreciation for the vitality, wisdom and life lessons that elders can transmit. Like the 105- and 106-year-old men that I am so honored to visit, may we continue to learn to number our days, to remain optimistic and to live our lives to the fullest. May we not only count our days, but may we make each day count. And as the saying goes, “til 120.”