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Aging is Life's Shabbat

06/06/2019 09:25:38 AM


Remarks from MEMORY AND AGING BREAKING THE STIGMA 2019 June 4, 2019

Two themes make up tonight’s program. Physicians will address how we can diagnose and treat mental illness associated with aging. Rabbis will address the stigma that surrounds mental illness within our community and what we can do collectively to counter this stigma.

This is the fourth year that we have conducted this program. We have spoken about mental illness in the form of depression, addiction, and perinatal mental health. In each instance, we argued that mental illness has a long provenance within halacha and Jewish tradition. We argued that mental health is a medical issue that should be treated like any other medical issue – without judgment and stigma. We have encouraged those who face mental health challenges to seek treatment, and we called upon everyone within our community to support them.

In addressing the stigma surrounding aging, we face a different problem. We do not face a culture of denial surrounding aging. We all know that we get old. The illness here is not in the person who is aging; the illness here is in a society that has rejected aging. We have privileged autonomy, control and power to such a degree that we have rejected weakness and neediness. In revelling in the technology that makes our lives faster and simpler, we reject those things that are slower and more complicated. Aging makes things slow and complicates. It has therefore become unacceptable to be old.

In her book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle writes about the culture surrounding technology, "We seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things." She goes on, “In the psychoanalytic tradition, one speaks about narcissism … [as] a personality so fragile that it cannot tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are and splitting off what it needs, what it can use." We collectively suffer from this growing narcissism. More and more, we treat each other as things. Our children feel this as they are pushed away from liberal arts education toward vocational training designed to make them more useful to their future employers. Yet as bad as students have it, the elderly are victimized most by this moral epidemic.

In preparation for my remarks this evening, I spoke to members of my congregation. One person recalled how during medical appointments, she is no longer spoken to but only spoken of. It is her children who are addressed by medical professionals. In his book, The Price and Privilege of Growing Old, Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes, “Society’s view of the aged is shot through with prejudice… Why? Because the old remind others of the road they themselves will have to travel. They therefore see us as representing death-in-waiting, and they do not like it.” Things have changed since Rabbi Plaut authored these words. Stigma does not come from the elderly representing death. Today, death is OK – because it can be put aside and doesn’t get in the way. What stigmatizes the elderly is that they are seen as a burden by people who do not want to be bothered by anyone but themselves.

What can we do about it? How do we confront this social-illness of our world writ large?

Judaism has a rich tradition that celebrates the wisdom of the elderly. The Torah writes:

מִפְּנֵ֤י שֵׂיבָה֙ תָּק֔וּם וְהָדַרְתָּ֖ פְּנֵ֣י זָקֵ֑ן וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּאֱלֹק֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י ה'

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

The Talmud in commenting upon this verse argues that we cherish and respect the wisdom that comes from experience. Yet, today, the very idea of experience and wisdom are under attack:

A young professional in my congregation, questioned whether his contemporaries can even define the word, “Wisdom.” He argued that all knowledge is accessible at all times in the palm of your hand. What do the elderly have that Google does not? Additionally, he argued – it is not just technology that stigmatizes the elderly – the rising generation holds changing views of justice and morality, which stigmatize the biases of an older morality. With totalitarian energy, this new ideology dehumanizes the people who cling to the old. We are left to question: In the absence of wisdom, how can we destigmatize aging?

It is here that we most need faith. Faith can allow us to see the human – and not just the utility. Martin Buber described how in appreciating the Godly within the Other, we might see a thou (a subject) and not an it (an object). In perhaps the most famous verse in Psalms, David writes about faith in the face of aging:

אַֽל־תַּ֭שְׁלִיכֵנִי לְעֵ֣ת זִקְנָ֑ה כִּכְל֥וֹת כֹּ֝חִ֗י אַֽל־תַּעַזְבֵֽנִי׃

Do not cast me off in old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me! (Tehillim 71:9)

The Malbim comments:

ולכן אל תשליכני לעת זקנה ככלות כחי, כי אז יאמרו שכל מה שעשיתי עד עתה היה מחמת רוב כחי ובכלות כחי הטבעי פסקו גבורותי

When my strength is gone, people will say that all that I did was on account of my physical strength. It is specifically then that we turn to God’s strength – the side of our identity that is not physical – our souls.

Judaism describes six days of creation followed by Shabbat, a day of Rest. In this Rest, we testify to the Godly in life. Aging is the Shabbat of life. In these years, we replace doing with being and give testimony to a world of meaning beyond the material. Judaism has something to teach the world. Aging is holy like Shabbat is holy.  Faith is a tool to de-stigmatize the Shabbat of life. Let us re-sanctify all of life by re-consecrating these most holy years.

Mon, 30 November 2020 14 Kislev 5781