One of the more sobering and poignant prayers in this season of reflection, is the one that states: “Do not throw us away in our time of old age; as our physical strength wanes, do not forsake us.” That stark prayer pretty much dispels the notion of the “golden years.” Humans are created and born into toil and challenges and these do not diminish – in fact they usually are exacerbated in one's advancing years. It is not only the realization that we are not as physically dexterous and perceptively alert as we once were but it is also the fact that times have changed dramatically.
The newest technology only serves to confuse us – I even long for a good old telephone that does nothing but make and receive phone calls. Jewish tradition and the Talmud teach us that our father Yaakov prayed to God that he age gradually and gracefully. Apparently, until that time, the end-of-life was abrupt and usually sudden.
Aging gradually and gracefully is an enormous blessing. It allows for contemplation, planning, wise assessments and an ability to impart advice and wisdom, experience and overview to the coming generations. Therefore, the prayer that I mentioned above, asking not to be “thrown” into old age suddenly and violently takes on additional meaning and substance. Sudden shocks, whether physical, mental, emotional or societal are all dangerous occurrences that create an imbalance in our lives and behavior. A gradual transition is negotiated much more easily and positively.
Statistical data informs us that the lifespan of humans has appreciably increased over the past century. In certain respects, it has almost doubled. Therefore there are numerous adjustments to be made regarding the accepted time of retirement, for example, from one's work and profession. What to do with the added time and years that we are now granted is one of the problems that baffle much of our society.
We all had pursuits that we wished to engage in in previous years but were unable to do so because of the pressures of our work and careers. However, most people find it difficult to pursue those interests later in life with any degree of accomplishment or enthusiasm.
The Talmud suggests that the study of Torah can play a vital role in one's later years. However, in most cases that pursuit and outlet is pretty much reserved for those who had engaged in Torah study on a fairly regular basis even during their earlier years. One should never despair of becoming a competent Torah scholar at any stage of life. However, it is never an easy task and as the years advance the task becomes ever more difficult.
There are many methods, organizations and ideas present today to help one overcome these difficulties and readjust one's attitude towards a more positive view of regular Torah study. I have found that such study provides refuge, albeit even if it is only temporary and fleeting, from the problems of aging. It transports one from the world of the here and now, with all of its pain, frustration, worry and challenge to another world of intellectual stimulation and spiritual serenity. If one can achieve that world then one is truly blessed.
The great holy man of the Talmud, Choni Hameakel, emerged from a sleep of seventy years. He found a different world than the one he experienced when he first laid down to sleep. He found that his entire society, his friends and acquaintances, the mores and behavior of others had all changed or disappeared completely. In the new world that he now surveyed he saw no place for himself. He asked that if his familiar world could not somehow be restored so that he would be able to function in a positive manner, then the Lord should take him immediately to his eternal rest.
There is something tragic in outliving one's generation. Creating a correct society that can successfully absorb an aging population is an imperative. As the aging and aged society continues to increase numerically greater efforts must be devoted to the welfare of those individuals and of that general society as well. We are witness to the strides made in this direction over the past half-century.
Maybe Choni would have had an easier time adjusting to his new situation in our time rather than in his time. Though, I suspect that the deep loneliness that he expressed is probably incapable of being assuaged by any human endeavors. In any event, may we all age gracefully and positively in good health and spirits.