“Is there not wisdom in the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?”
No doubt some of you saw this week’s front page Wall Street Journal about Brazilian seniors (those over 60), who are allowed by law to go to the front of lines and receive immediate attention. Those who prevent the elderly from this new privilege can receive a fine of about $750 per infraction. Many Brazilian supermarkets, banks and post offices have “caixas preferenciais” - preferential lines - for seniors and those who are pregnant, have young children or have a disability. Some protest that people who are otherwise sprightly are taking advantage, the “dyed hair and a pocket full of Viagra” syndrome, or exploiting this privilege to do jobs for younger family members and friends. Some seniors don’t want to use this privilege for fear that they will be looked at unkindly by people on the same line. Yet others recognize the importance that this communicates about aging in society generally. By the time one reaches these golden years, life should get a little easier. People should show a little more respect.
The article reminded me of being on an Israeli bus where it is common to see a verse from Leviticus on the bus wall near the front to encourage people to give up their seats: “Stand up in the presence of the aged and honor the face of the elderly” (19:32). It is a statement of pride; it is the application of one of our prized values. We treat the elderly with respect. The same word in Hebrew - zekanim - is used both to describe seniors and sages. “Grey hair,” states Proverbs, “is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness” (16:31). In antiquity, longevity was a sign of God’s blessing.
Yet, we also find another perspective on aging in Jewish texts, one of candor and pain. King David wanted to reward Barzillai, a wealthy gentleman from the Galilee who helped David at a difficult time, by granting him special privileges. “Now Barzillai was very old, eighty years of age...The king said to Barzillai, ‘Cross over with me and stay with me in Jerusalem, and I will provide for you.’ But Barzillai answered the king, ‘How many more years will I live, that I should go up to Jerusalem with the king? I am now eighty years old. Can I tell the difference between what is enjoyable and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats and drinks? Can I still hear the voices of male and female singers? Why should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?’” (II Samuel 19: 32-35). In reflecting on his old age, Barzillai refuses to be a burden to the king and speaks of the despair of getting old and being unable to enjoy what he did when he was younger.
Ecclesiastes takes a more maudlin and lyrical approach: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them'- before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain; when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim; when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire no longer is stirred. Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets” (12:2-5) Desire fades. The struggles of aging augment. Death knocks.
In one midrash, a woman who ages with weariness and despair becomes tired of her life. She visits a rabbi to ask for his advice since she no longer wants to live. He told her to stop attending synagogue every day. Three days later she passed away (Yalkut Shimoni, Proverbs 943).
This story contains a very important message about aging. What kept this woman alive was her synagogue - her faith community sustained her. The grieving over who she once was diminished in the presence of others. She had somewhere to go. She had people to see. She had prayers to say. God, too, was a companion to her in her old age, in the stunning words of the prophet: “Even to your old age I am He; and even to white hairs will I carry you” (Isaiah 46:4). God remains a constant and will carry us all through the last chapter, especially if we cannot count on others to carry us.
Synagogues, community centers and other gathering spots are places that offer us the opportunity to carry the elderly, to help manage the crumbling self-worth of someone who is struggling with getting old. So maybe Brazil has it right. Giving seniors a little advantage is a slim way we compensate for the many challenges of this time in the lifespan. And maybe we should not rely on God to do all the heavy lifting. We also need to carry our elders.
When is the last time, outside of your own relatives, that you dispelled the loneliness of a senior citizen with your company? Schedule a next time.