From earliest times the Jewish people has paid special attention to the welfare of the aged. In many biblical passages the “elders” are the wise people, the judges of the people. We read in the Book of Leviticus 19:32 “You shall rise up before the hoary head and honor the face of the old man.” The Rabbis understood this literally: whenever an elder passes by one should rise to one’s feet as a sign of respect. The core philosophy of care for the elderly is expressed in the Psalmist’s poignant cry “Cast me not off in the time of old age. When my strength fails, do not forsake me” (Psalms 71:7).
Respect for elders became a dominant idea that was expressed in daily Jewish life. In specifying the rules about rising before elders, the Code of Jewish Law defines old age as 70 years. It is noteworthy that Levites who served in the Jerusalem Temple were retired at age 50 because the work was so demanding, but in later days, rabbis did not retire as long as they could adequately perform their responsibilities. In fact, Rabbi Hai Gaon, head of the great academy in Babylon retained his position until his death at age 99.
Life expectancy in the United States has increased as a result of improved health care and environmental factors and consequently, the need to care for the aged is becoming more pressing. In my work as a music therapist, I have been fortunate to sing and play music for men and women who were more than 100 years old and still going strong. I was struck by the fascinating article in today’s New York Times about a 105-year-old woman who beat COVID-19. When asked the secret to her longevity and resilience she responded: “Prayer, Prayer, Prayer. And no junk food.” The prayer response sparked my interest in reading the entire article that related how the woman ate nine gin-soaked golden raisins each morning. Her children and grandchildren recalled this ritual as just one of their grandmother’s endearing life-long habits which also included: drinking aloe juice straight from the container and brushing her teeth with baking soda. (Apparently, that was also highly effective in that she did not have a single cavity until age 99!)
This past summer I researched the formula for a long life according to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most influential books. I was surprised to discover that it contained many recommendations for longevity such as:
- Honor your father and mother.
- Come early and stay late when attending synagogue.
- Take your time in the bathroom (I need to think about this one!).
- Be kind to animals.
- Practice generosity and charity.
- Practice humility.
- Every night before going to sleep forgive people who have aggravated you.
- Pray daily.
- Be patient when teaching others.
- Be respectful.
A growing body of current research reveals that improved mood, better physical health and increased longevity are correlated with generosity and compassion. Contributing time as a volunteer and making charitable donations has been found to reduce stress and improve one’s health.
During this current pandemic I am more appreciative than ever for all the care givers in private homes, nursing homes and other care facilities. They are to be commended for their good work in these challenging times and deserve our gratitude.
We are so fortunate that our elders are living longer these days. Their longevity makes caring for our elders ever more vital. We must heed the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism who wrote: “The prosperity of any country is directly correlated to its treatment of the elderly.”
There is a long-standing Jewish custom to wish people “may you live to be 120” on their birthdays. This is based on the biblical verse : “My spirit shall not abide in man forever, for that he also is flesh. Therefore, shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.”
So, I end by wishing you all “till 120” — a long life of good health, generosity and compassion, and service to humanity.