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Aging with Wisdom: Rosh Hashanah Sermon by Rabbi Tina Grimberg, September 10, 2018

13/11/2018 11:12:30 AM


Last year, after the High Holy Days, I spoke with one of the members of our community who mentioned to me that, upon entering the sanctuary for the holidays, she noticed how much older everyone around looked. “Age,” if we are fortunate, is the price we pay for a long life. The alternative, I am often reminded, is not particularly welcomed.

So, what does our tradition say about getting old? Does it have an opinion or wisdom to share? May I share with you some of its teaching:

“And Abraham became old” (Gen.24:1) Until Abraham, there was no old age, so that one who wished to speak with Abraham might mistakenly find himself speaking with Isaac, or vs. versa. But when Abraham came before God, he pleaded for old age, saying, “Master of the universe, you must make a visible distinction between father and son, between a youth and an old man, so that the old man may be honored by the youth.” So, Abraham went off, passed the night, and arose in the morning. When he arose, he saw that the hair on his head and of his beard had turned white. He said, “Master of the universe, if You have given me white hair as a mark of old age, I do not find it attractive.” “On the contrary,” “God replied, “the what head is a crown of glory” (Prov.16:31) (B. BM 87a; Gen. R. 65:9)

If we take this midrash to task and analyze concerns of our ancestors, it would have become obvious that their concern and ours are somewhat similar. Abraham asks that he be distinguished from his son to receive the due respect his age and position deserves. The concern of the rabbis who uttered this Midrash in Talmudic times is similar to our modern concerns. This story places Abraham at the center, to teach and reinforce that the aging process is to be respected and honored. Old and young are not the same.

I would say that looking at the group of us this morning, it is a concern we share. When I walk through Yorkdale Mall, happy to say I do not do that often, I see images that tells me a sad story about our times. Huge advertisements suggest that among us there are no seniors, no one with special needs, no one with a few extra pounds. By the way, the only place where I see smiling seniors looking at me is on the billboard of Kensington or other retirement facilities. It isolates the image of age in the special place reserved only for them.

No wonder we are uncomfortable. No wonder we are frightened.

May I quote some statistics. In general, the North American population has been aging.   The North American Jewish community will follow this trend short of Ultra-Orthodox circles. The large numbers of baby boomers are entering their retirement years. The birth rate in North America has been dropping steadily. There are more people in the 60-plus category in general than under 15 years old category.

I dedicate this talk to my teacher Rabbi Rachel Cowan z”l who trained and developed a program for the Jewish Community on Aging; called “Wise Aging”. Some of you have been part of our seminars last year and I will continue having this conversation in small intimate groups. For some of you this is an uncomfortable platform. We are lucky to be granted another year and reach the stage where this conversation is possible. However, you are welcome to avoid this conversation by going downstairs to the family and children service, but I would caution you that when you will return you will still be half an hour older.

I think you should stay. I found the topic particularly poignant for this time of the year. This is Rosh Hashanah, the time of Teshuvah, introspection, soul searching and honest conversations.

According to my teachers Rabbi Cowan of blessed memory, there are several chapters not to be avoided when aging with wisdom is to be considered.

One of these chapters in our lives is desire for peace, and reconciliation.

Peace is an elusive matter. There is never enough of it. This is the time of the year when we try to make relationships better. But not only should we make them better for ourselves, we should make them better for other members of the family as well. The ones we know and the future generation we will never meet, but those who still greatly matter to us. Peace is not something that ends with us, but it might begin with us. A story from Linda Thal demonstrates this profound tension:

 “When I was sixteen, I visited a friend who lived about an hour’s drive from my family. We were at her synagogue when her rabbi approached me and asked, “Do you have an Uncle Sam and an Uncle Abe?” “Yes,” I replied cautiously. “And an Aunt Rose?” he asked. “Yes” “And is your father Morrie?” I nodded, feeling strange and a little frightened. “I think we are cousins,” he said.

It had never occurred to me that there were relatives whom I did not know. And a rabbi in the family!

When I got home and reported the conversation to my parents, my father replied, “That must be Dave! I haven’t seen him since I was about eleven and he was six. There was an argument between our fathers.” That’s as much as Dave or my father knew...

What was the argument about? No one seems to know. Whatever it was, we all grew up with far fewer cousins than we might have had – pieces of family history were lost”.

Sometimes the fracture is so profound that it takes generations to find a bridge to one another. May this generation be you.

Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit

Another essential chapter in our aging development is our friendship and peers.

I had the pleasure of seeing a wonderful musical “Come from Away.” Thousands of people stranded in the remote town of Gander, Newfoundland in the wake of 9/11. I watched this show as a New Yorker, and as a Canadian. My son was sitting next to me. Even though he has heard his mother and father’s story about dating during these turbulent times, his reaction to the power of the message was moderate. However, my peers who sat next to me cried for joy, pride and memory. All of us could have referenced where we stood when the news of 9/11 reached us. There was something so alive, poignant and meaningful in our perception and appreciation of the show’s message, script and delivery. There is no substitute for one’s friends and companions.

The Rabbis of the Talmud placed enormous importance on friendship.

A sad and poignant story is told about Choni Hame’agel. He was greatly revered for his wisdom and knowledge. One day he fell asleep for seventy years. When he awoke, no one of his own generation was left, and no one recognized him when he came to Beit Midrash. He was ridiculed when he said he was Choni. Without anyone to affirm his identity to learn and share with, Choni prayed, “Hevrutah or Metutah” “Either friendship or death” (Talmud, Ta’anit 23a)

Talmud tells us: “I have learned much from my teachers, but from my friends even more than my teachers.” Ta’anit 7a

The Ethical will, a Jewish tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages, is a parent’s letter to his or her children, offering hope, guidance, moral teaching and wisdom for life in the years ahead. Rabbi Elana Zaiman, writes: “I was a teenager when my father handed me a copy of his ethical will. As I read his words, I cried. I was in awe of his ability to admit his weakness, state his beliefs and values, to acknowledge his hopes and prayers for us, his children. I still cry when I read his ethical will. And I read it often. I read it when I’m annoyed with him, when I feel far away from him in distance, or spirit. And always, I feel his love.”

These are treasures that every family is proud of. They are among most meaningful possessions left to us by our loved ones.

In my conversations with the members of our community I will often hear them express regret: “I wish I have asked more questions from my grandparents…I wish I talked to my father about his war experiences…I wish I asked my mother about her early days in Montreal…”

Our children do not know what and when to ask what really matters. May I propose: How about if we tell them. We who begin to age want to tell our stories to those we love. Your letters and notes will become a treasure. Not only for your children, but for the Jewish community as a whole: write down recipes, beliefs, surprises, transformative moments, regrets. The field of genealogy is one boring endeavor unless you can pepper the stories of your life with your honesty, humor and depth of your experience. Write it down, tell it.

Its efficacy might skip the present generation, but I assure you that there will be a soul biologically or spiritually curious enough to want to hear your truth.  

The last but not the least chapter on aging I would like to reference is one of personal and communal legacy. As we age we understand we will not live forever.

According to our Jewish mystics we are not only Jewish individuals, but we are Knesset Yisrael, a spiritual body of our people. Last Saturday night I saw members and non-members of our community standing outside of our synagogue at 12 midnight not wanting to say goodbye to one another. After viewing a film through which we cried together, after the evening of soulful tunes of Selichot, we were not ready to say goodbye to one another. People who came that night came for many different reasons. Some maybe for prayer; some maybe for the movie; for some a beautiful song and for some for all of the above.

There is a wonderful story about a young boy walking to synagogue with his grandfather. “Why are you going to synagogue Zadie?” the child asked. “Is it so you can talk to God?”. Zadie responds, “I go to synagogue to talk to my friend Abe. But Abe goes to synagogue to talk to God.”

We need each other as we sustain this place. Our shul nurtures and elevates us. What people find here, no Google can match. This is an enduring and intimate bond our community shares as we at Darchei Noam imagine tomorrow.

Individually we are vulnerable to illness, decline and death, but together as people we are much stronger. The mystics teach us that Knesset Yisrael, a community of Israel, a spiritual body of the Jewish people have such an impact that together we can commune and even argue with the Holy One for the Jewish future. All generations before us would have asked for eternity, but instead they became a letter in our Torah scroll, precious, singular, carefully crafted, floating towards the sky like the letters of our Torah scroll outside of this Social Hall.

Maybe, just maybe, our individual Jewish vitality and eternal youth lives and thrives here at our Darchei Noam home in the Jewish tradition we embody through friendships, deep connections and our shared dreams.

May it be a good year for all of us and may we gather here next year to see each other age and smile at the same time.

Sun, 21 April 2024 13 Nisan 5784