A month ago, my wife and I moved to the independent living section of the Willows in Westborough, MA. We have an apartment on the top floor with two bed rooms and two baths. I also have an office. We are comfortable in our setting. We get one meal a day, and all the amenities of living in a large complex.
Of all the residents with whom we interact, we are among the youngest. I am still teaching Ethics, part-time, at the Framingham State University, and my wife Ines is busy babysitting for our grandchildren or driving them around whenever she is needed.
Living among older people taught me a great deal. I see that, except for illness, most people function well into their 90’s. Last night we celebrated the birthday of Mr. Brown who is 99 years old and doing rather well. We also had dinner with a lady who is 98, and sharp as a whip. She still drives her car during the day and takes part in many social and cultural activities of our community. In the mornings, when I go to the gym in the first floor, I meet a number of people who come to exercise and who are much older than me.
The Hebrew Bible tells us that Abraham died at the age of 175 (Gen.25:8) and that Moses died at the age of 120 (Deut. 34: 7-8)-I doubt that. On the other hand, Abraham was 75 when he left Haran (Gen.12:4)- this is possible; and that Moses was 80 when he led the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex.7:7)-this is also possible, unless all of these dates are figurative. On the other hand, our Hebrew texts insist on showing respect to the elderly. For example, “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect to the elderly” (Lev.19:32), for the simple reason that, as Job puts it, “Is not wisdom found among the aged?” (12:12). In our time, many elderly people are forgotten, ignored or warehoused because no one has time for them. This is wrong. The aged have a great deal to contribute to family and society.
When I turned 80 a month ago, I thought that I was entering “old age.” After all, according to the Talmud (BB 75a) “If one dies at eighty, he has reached old age.” I now know that I was mistaken. True, some people tragically die when they are much younger, but in our time, for many individuals, old age begins much later in life.
In rabbinic writings, age 80 is identified as “the time of remarkable strength” (gevurah) (PA 5: 21). I always thought that the Rabbis had a good sense of humor when they viewed 80 as “strength.” I now realize that most likely they had in mind “mental strength,” or “wisdom” or “discernment,” and not physical strength. According to the Sifra, another rabbinic text, “An older person is one who has achieved wisdom.” (Ked. 7:12).
So, what is the lesson? As you get older, keep active; now that you have more freedom, spend more time with family and friends; show the way to the younger ones; be a role model. And give gratitude for everyday that are you are alive and well.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Oct. 12, 2018