Old Age: Curse or Blessing?

Sermon given April 18, 1997, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

This sermon is based on one delivered by Student Rabbi Hara E. Person at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, Massachusetts, on Rosh Hashanah 5757.

I have often begun my sermons with stories about my grandmother. Tonight, she is here, so l’ll have to tell a true one. Actually, this is a story that my grandmother has been telling about herself for a long time, since she was much younger, about eighty. She told her doctor, quite emphatically, that she did not want to get old. “Too late, Sabina,” her doctor replied, “You are old.”

My grandmother meant, of course, that she hoped to escape the worst of the physical and mental disabilities that often accompany advanced age. We all share her desire. We fear a future filled with terrible physical pain, or worse, the diminution of our mental abilities. We have visited nursing homes. Even in the best of them, we see many residents whose existence represents a future that we dread. As technology and medicine enable us to live longer and longer, we have more to fear from the way in which our grandparents, our parents, and we, ourselves, will age.

The Torah and the Talmud describe in great detail our obligations toward aging parents. Sadly, though, they don’t prepare us well for how we should feel about aging. A dear friend of mine from college, Hara Person, who is now a rabbinical student, has shared with me some meaningful insights about aging, and about God’s role in that process. Tonight, I would like to share her wisdom with you.

Hara urges us to look again at the creation story in Genesis. God says: “Let us make humanity in our image.” Our sages have long puzzled over God’s use of the plural in this passage. Don’t we believe in one unified God? Yes, we do, but we also embrace the idea that our one God has many characteristics, encompassing the whole spectrum of existence. God has traits that seem masculine, and others that seem feminine. God is sometimes compassionate like a parent, and at other times stern like a judge. God’s image may also embrace each stage of human life, youth as well as maturity, vigorous young adulthood as well as old age.

Indeed, many children, and probably some adults, too, imagine God as an old man on a throne. The Torah associates age with wisdom. A debate in the Talmud, though, expresses some doubt. One of the sages argued that elders should be honored only if they are wise. Another claimed that all older people should be honored, regardless of their wisdom. The latter position prevailed, but the debate raged on, until the medieval rabbi Rashi explained. Holiness pervades all aspects of life. The person who lives longer has more experiences, and therefore the greatest number of possibilities for encounters with God. Each moment of life is of infinite value. How great, then, is the triumph of being blessed with so much living. Simply having managed to live a long life is an accomplishment.

Old age is exalted, even with its disabilities. A legend tells us, in fact, that Abraham and Sarah were honored by being the very first humans to age noticeably. Until their time, one could not distinguish between young and old. Abraham, apparently, was distressed, for people kept confusing him with his son, Isaac. “Master of the Universe,” he beseeched God, “Make a visible distinction between father and son, between youth and old age, so that the elderly may be honored by the young.”

“Very well,” God replied, “I shall begin with you.” Abraham went off to sleep, and when he arose in the morning, he saw that the hair of his head and beard had turned white. He was not amused! He complained to God. God tells him, though, that his white hair is a “crown of glory.”

“That’s fine for Abraham,” we might say. But how do we transfer that sense of glory to our friends and family members whose aging takes so much of their own glory away from them, causes such suffering for them, and so much pain for us? How can we watch as the cruelties of aging rob them of the very qualities that brought them respect and honor? Why would God allow such sadness, or even create it?

Perhaps God is trying to teach us that being, just being, simply living, is meaningful, even without doing or acting. God values every moment of human life, including the last years of people whose aging is difficult. Therefore, all of us may view our own lives, each hour, never as a curse, always as a blessing.

In our goal-oriented, high-powered world, we focus on accomplishments. Our lives feel worth living only if we achieve something. We might ask ourselves, though, to consider the first week of creation: Which day of it was most important, and which day is revered tonight? That day, of course, is the last day, Shabbat, the day of rest. The Torah doesn’t tell us what happened on Shabbat. All we know is that God ceased from the work of creation, and blessed this seventh day of rest. God declares Shabbat to be holy, precisely because of the cessation of activity.

We may look upon aging, then, as the Shabbat of life. After retirement, there can be time for leisure, travel, study, and family. My own grandmother, like many of our Temple members, like many here tonight, has an expanding circle of friends, card games, crocheted afghans, and joy within her family circle. Such a Sabbath is meaningful and purposeful, even as it is more restful than the life of earlier years.

Old age is a Sabbath, even for those with too few friends and indifferent family, whose days consist of waiting, watching, sitting, and sleeping. For them, Shabbat may even be a more useful concept, for Shabbat is not about productivity, but about rest. There is no such thing as useless activity, or waste, or meaninglessness on Shabbat.

Let us change our concept of the cycle of life, and allow for a Sabbath at the end. These years, too, are part of human existence, created in the image of God. Becoming a great-grandparent, celebrating a ninetieth birthday, witnessing the productive adulthood of grandchildren, and even welcoming one’s own child to senior citizenhood, all are among life’s most miraculous possibilities. Moreover, none of these blessings can be achieved in youth. Our medieval sage Rashi was right: long life itself is worthy of honor.

We may still experience pain and even feel angry as we behold debilitating changes in ourselves and in those we love. And yet, we may come to see the goodness in every stage of human life, in old age even as in youth. We may behold the signs of aging as crowns of glory. We may cease to reject old age as a curse. We may even embrace advancing years, filled with the blessings of the Lord.