Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5779
Rabbi Aviva Bass
I have some bad news for you: Today, you are older than you have ever been! Those of you who have been here for our monthly Birthday Shabbat services know that I give a birthday blessing to the celebrants, which includes the phrase “Ad Meah v’Esrim,” or “May you live until 120.” Why such a blessing? Why would anyone want to live that long? I have officiated at funerals for people who live to be over 100 years old, and it is usually a very sad occasion, because by that time, people usually will have outlived their friends, spouses, and other family, and sometimes even their children. But what if that were not the case? What if everyone could live to 120 years? It is not as crazy an idea as this bracha, this blessing once sounded. With advances in medicine, people are living longer lives. In fact, the World Health Organization has published that the fastest growing age-segment of our global society is the senior population. In their estimation, by the year 2050, over 1.5 billion people in the world will be over age 65. So is this a blessing or a curse?
There is much to suggest that, at least in the United States, this may very well be a curse. According to anthropologist Jared Diamond, in his TED talk entitled “How Societies Can Grow Old Better,” in the United States, hospitals utilize an “age-based allocation of resources,” meaning that when hospital resources are limited, such as with organ transplants and use of the time of medical personnel, preference is given to younger patients over older ones. The reasoning for this is because younger patients have more years ahead of them. Diamond makes the point that the fact that older patients have more years behind them is unimportant. According to Diamond, the underlying reason for this attitude is a culture influenced by a few factors. First, our country espouses a work ethic which values those who are working for income over those who are not; secondly, Americans tend to value self-reliance and independence, so younger Americans tend to look down on older people as no longer able to embody those attributes; and the cult of youth in our society. For example, Diamond points out that advertisements always depict younger people as drinking sodas and beers and smiling, enjoying their lives. Older people use the same products, and yet they are only featured in advertisements for retirement homes and pension-planning. Given all of these values in our society, it may seem that our older years are nothing but sorrowful. Add to that facing our own mortality, and it seems that our elder years are to be dreaded.
However, according to Ashton Applewhite in her TED lecture entitled “Age-ism,” the longer that people live, the more they come to terms with death, and many studies around the world have demonstrated what she calls a “U curve of happiness.” It turns out that people tend to be the happiest at the beginnings and at the end of their lives. Why so few people know that is because of what Applewhite terms “Age-ism.” People assume that someone is too old (or too young) for various tasks that are not age-dependent. We know that it is not okay to allocate resources by race or gender, but, she asks, “Why do we think it’s okay to weigh the needs of the young against the old?”
Applewhite also points out that all prejudice comes from a sense of “other-ing,” placing people in a different category from “us,” whoever “we” define ourselves to be. And yet, as she states, “Age-ism is prejudice against our own future selves.” This sense of older people as “other” stems from a denial that we will (G-d willing) become that older person. This denial rears its head when we try to pass for younger than we are or believe in anti-aging products, or feel that our bodies are betraying us, “simply because they are changing.” She asks the poignant question, “Why on earth do we stop celebrating our ability to adapt and grow as we move through life?” And, what is worse is that older people can be the most age-ist of all because they have had a lifetime of internalizing these messages. They show up in our language. For instance, Applewhite says that she used to talk of her own forgetfulness in terms of “senior moments.” “Until,” she says, “I realized that when I lost the car keys in high school I didn’t call it a junior moment!”
Applewhite admits that there are real worries we all have, such as running out of money when we get older, getting sick, or ending up alone. However, the experience of aging is better or worse depending on the culture in which a person lives. In the U.S., much of the undercurrent of age-ism is based on advertisement and our consumerist culture. Satisfaction does not create markets, but shame and fear do. For example, the cosmetics industry sends the message that wrinkles are ugly so that we will buy skin-care products. And the pharmaceutical industry sends the message that women should avoid menopause as long as possible so that women buy their medications. For women, the internalized prejudice is that much more powerful because there exists a double-standard that “aging enhances men but devalues women.” Women feel like they are a lesser version of the women they once were. And we reinforce these negative concepts when we compete with one another to stay young. But aging is only embarrassing when we believe it to be, until we decide to stop being embarrassed by the natural process of life. As Applewhite states, “Aging is not a problem or a disease. Aging is living… It is a natural, lifelong process that unites us all.”
Of course, not all societies around the world view aging negatively. In many countries in Africa, elders are revered for their experience and wisdom. Dixon Chibanda capitalized on this cultural attitude to create something truly wonderful to fill a gap in his country’s infrastructure. Chibanda is one of only 12 psychologists in all of the country of Zimbabwe. There is a great need for mental health professionals all over the world, because it is estimated that over 300 million people in the world today suffer from depression, according to the World Health Organization. Every 40 seconds somewhere in the world someone dies by suicide. And yet depression can be treated and suicides averted. After the suicidal death of a young woman who could not afford to travel the great distance to his office to see him, Chibanda had a brainstorm. What he decided was one of the most valuable resources available in Africa is grandmothers. He said, “They exist in every community and they don’t leave in search of greener pastures,” except, he notes, for the greener pasture of heaven. And so he trained grandmothers in evidence-based talk therapy supported by digital platforms (mobile phones) around his country. And the effects have been astonishing. In just one year, over 30,000 people received treatment on the “Friendship Bench” in a community in Zimbabwe. The results of the first trial were written up in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Six months after receiving treatment from a grandmother, the clients were still symptom-free. They experienced no depression and suicidal ideation was greatly reduced. In fact, the trial study concluded that these grandmothers were more effective than doctors at treating depression! This model is now also being used in Malawi, the island of Zanzibar, and beginning in New York City.
So how does all of this research about aging fit with our spirituality as Jews? Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, (ztz”l), devoted much of the last few decades of his life to what he called “spiritual eldering.” In his book called From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older, Reb Zalman writes about extended lifespans bringing extended consciousness. He explains most of our lifetime as the planting of wisdom and of our elder years as the time to “harvest” our lives. He also speaks of each person’s accumulated wisdom as part of a Global Whole. He said during an interview on Spiritual Eldering, “The moment you begin to see yourself not only as an individual but as a cell of the Global Brain, the Purpose of life is so much larger.” In his book, he writes of the “art of life completion” and the “tools for harvesting life.” He writes extensively about the importance of mentoring others, both for the senior mentor and the “mentee.” He goes into great detail about how this mentorship can take place and the levels and stages of the mentorship and the sharing of life experience and wisdom by the elder. This sharing of wisdom is part of the creation of a legacy that lives beyond the limits of our own lifetime. Reb Zalman used to ask the question, “Are you saved?” And by that he meant “saved” as in being uploaded onto a computer hard-drive—In other words, have you given over your accumulated wisdom and experience to the next generation?
In terms of seniors’ value to society, in his book, Reb Zalman cites Ken Dychtwald and other prominent gerontologists who have proposed the creation of a national Elder Corps, similar to the public service program the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression Era. In this concept, the Elder Corps would be funded by federal and state governments and administered on the local level, and would enable elders to serve in a volunteer capacity in schools, hospitals, hospices, universities, rehabilitation programs, and other centers. The elders would receive social recognition or perhaps a stipend for their efforts.
Reb Zalman also proposes the use of elders in what he terms “elder duty,” similar to jury duty, in which they would put their citizenship into action as mediators in senior centers, clerical aids, tutors, and volunteers in social service agencies. Reb Zalman also stresses the importance of intergenerational relationships.
You may remember the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. In that book, the author, then a young man, writes about the connection between himself and Morrie, during their Tuesday meetings. Albom says he never would have attained that wisdom early enough in his life to utilize it, were it not for his teacher, Morrie.
Reb Zalman writes about living arrangements between young people and seniors. He states, “Searching for a sense of community, a multigenerational group of biologically unrelated people who are committed to certain core values can ‘make relatives’ with one another and live together. . .” This concept is already occurring in various places in the U.S. and abroad, with college-aged students living rent-free with seniors. There are also day care centers in various areas of our country in which seniors and preschoolers share the same building, and meet up for shared events and activities, thus providing an opportunity for the seniors to enjoy the young and the young to benefit from interacting with their elders.
Here at Temple Sinai, I have spoken about the creation of more intergenerational programming and would welcome your ideas and help to implement them. One concept I would like to incorporate is an “adopt a grandparent” program. In this program, with children or teens would “adopt” a senior without family in the vicinity. I believe such relationships would enhance the feeling of extended family for all of us and benefit those of all ages.
Getting back to our original story about Moses, you may wonder why the ancient rabbis decided on the number of years of his life, 120 years, to be the blessing we give to others as our wish for their longevity. They could have chosen any of our patriarchs. But they chose Moses, far from the longest-lived of our Biblical ancestors. As Rabbi Jack Riemer notes in his book Finding G-d in Unexpected Places, the Torah states that when Moses died at the age of 120, “his eyes were still undimmed and his strength was undiminished.” Rabbi Riemer interprets this in the following way. He states, it is “really a two-part blessing. Moses had a good old age, and not just because he lived for many years. He had a good old age because, even when he was old, he kept his eyes focused on the future. He kept his eyes focused on the task that he still had to do, and that was the reason why his strength did not diminish.” All of the scholars whose ideas I have cited in this sermon come to the same conclusion about how we can age without fear and depression: a sense of purpose, of moving forward and continuing to learn and to teach, to grow intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. To make the post-retirement years a time of great new discovery and engagement in life, rather than isolation from it.
On this day, traditionally we recite four times in our liturgy, “Shema kolenu, Al tashlicheynu l’et ziknah, kichlot kocheynu al ta’azveynu,” “Do not abandon us when we are old, O G-d. When our strength gives out, do not abandon us.” Let us do our part to ensure that we are not abandoned, by reaching out to others and continuing to engage in relationships and in life. In this way, whatever number of years we may have in life, we may continue to have life in our years. G’mar Hatimah Tovah!