Like many Boomers, the Beatles provided the soundtrack to my teen and adult years. Paul McCartney wrote a song in late 1966 (my first year of college) when his father Jim turned 64, one-year short of the mandatory retirement age in the U.K. Here is the memorable stanza:
When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out to quarter to three, would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?
Like illness, aging is an inevitable part of life. However, unlike illness, aging in Jewish thought is not seen as a burden. In fact, the Bible considers longevity to be a great blessing—old age is a reward for honoring one’s parents.
Several years ago I read a wonderful book called Wise Aging. The book has helped countless readers find new meaning and happiness in life. It tackles an array of issues such as romance, relationships, living with loss, cultivating well-being and more. The book has spawned Aging Wisely workshops nationwide.
From its very beginnings, the Jewish people has paid particular attention to the welfare of the elderly. In many passages in the Bible the “elders” are the wise people, the judges of the people. This status was earned by dint of their wisdom and experience. The biblical book of Leviticus says: You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old [one], and you shall fear God. The rabbinic writers understood this literally, that whenever an old person passes by, one should rise to one’s feet as a token of respect. On public buses in Israel the signage in Hebrew quotes this verse, reminding people to give up their seat to an elder. The whole philosophy of care of the elderly is expressed in the book of Psalms: “Cast me not off in the time of old age. When my strength fails, do not forsake me.”
The Code of Jewish Law contains all sorts of rules about how to enact the commandment of “rising before the aged” and defines old age as 70 years. It is interesting that while the Levites serving in the Jerusalem Temple were retired at age 50 because the work was demanding, it was not customary for rabbis to retire if they could still carry out their tasks adequately. There are a number of instances in Jewish history of Rabbis serving until their death at very advanced ages. Rav Hai Gaon, head of the great Babylonian academy, was 99 years of age when he died in the year 1038. He was active in his office to the very end. Last year I attended a wedding of one of my students. The senior rabbi who was vibrant and active was in his early 90’s.
For the past 4 years I have been a part time chaplain and music therapist for a local hospice. One of my most interesting visits is with a man who is 107. I enjoy my time with him because of his amazingly positive attitude toward life. In his life this man witnessed the construction of the Empire State building and went to its top in the year it opened. He lived in homes with and without electricity, experienced financial depressions, and two World Wars. His family knew both Winston Churchill (“not so nice”) and Mahatma Gandhi (“very nice”). I contend that it is his innate curiosity and eagerness to witness all that life has to offer that has kept him going. And he always has a smile on his face and thanks me for visiting him.
Recently the New York Times featured an article about a 107 year-old barber (recognized by the Guinness Book of World records as the oldest working barber) who has been “trimming a bit off the sides” for 96 years. He started cutting hair when he was 11 when Warren Harding was the U.S. President and still works full time, cutting hair five times a week from noon to 8pm, and. According to the article, he spends much of his time on his feet in a pair of worn, cracked leather black shoes and rarely has called in sick. When asked to what he attributes his longevity, he offered only that he has always put in a satisfying day’s work and he never smoked or drank heavily. (Incidentally, when I asked my patient about his longevity, he said that he always ends every lunch and dinner with a cup of ice cream!)
As the population of the US continues to age, more and more facilities are being built to care for the elderly. Care for the aged has always been a hallmark of Jewish communal life. Long before the establishment of old-age homes, older Jews who had no surviving family could look forward to being cared for by the larger community. In many ways, the question in the McCartney lyric, “will you still need me” is asked by all of us, at every age. Is there any stage of life when we are not concerned about really being seen? About not being heard? About not being needed? As people age, what many most fear is not being needed.
Ageism, discrimination based on a person’s age, happens all the time in business and industry. Prejudice toward the elderly still abounds. All too often, older people who are willing and able to work find it difficult to find jobs unless they are self-employed. In contrast, Judaism has always asserted that a person be judged on his or her merits.
We owe our elders reverence. According to my teacher the late A.J. Heschel (in The Insecurities of Freedom) all that our elders ask for is “consideration, attention, not to be discarded.” It is undoubtedly true that care of aged parents can be challenging, but God promises longevity to those who treat their elders with respect, love, dignity and caring: “Honor your father and mother, that you days may be long upon the land which God gives you.” (Deuteronomy 5:16)
My wife Leora wrote her doctoral dissertation on The Development of Children’s Attitudes Toward the Aged. Her research found that by ages 6-8 years, children began to demonstrate negative beliefs and feelings about the aged and their capabilities. The introduction to her dissertation included a beautiful opening quote from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: “The prosperity of a country is in accordance with the treatment of its aged. “
May we all be blessed with healthy, productive and wise aging – and the care, love and respect of our family and community as we grow old. May we have the privilege of enjoying the gifts of time and wisdom with the elders in our communities and families. May we find blessings in each day, and “ May we use all our days so we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12)