Old age

Going Grey

Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is found on the path of righteousness.
— Proverbs 16:31

Mark Twain famously said that wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been. It’s a nice thought but perhaps a bit naïve. I find Sonja Henie, the Norwegian athlete, a bit more convincing: “Jewelry takes people’s minds off your wrinkles.”

I’ve been thinking about wrinkles this week. This doesn’t mean I’ve spent a lot of time in front of the mirror but rather pondering a rabbinic observation I came across a few days ago. A talmudic discussion of Moses’ mother, Yoheved, reveals her youthfulness, a word-play based on using the Hebrew word “daughter” to describe this elderly woman: “Her signs of youth re-emerged. The flesh became smooth, the wrinkles were straightened out, and beauty returned to its place” (BT Bava Batra 120a). Wow. What skin cream did that woman have, and how can I get some?

The gemara seems to affirm what both beauty counters world-over and NASA are working on: fighting gravity. The desire to go back in time and make the old young again is surprising given the general biblical and rabbinic praise of wisdom and old age. Getting old is not a guarantee that one gets wise, but we hope that the two will come together when looks takes a backseat in our lives.

In our ongoing study this season, this understanding seems to be at the heart of a statement in Ethics of the Fathers (6:8) that uses the quote above from Proverbs to praise the elderly. “R. Shimon b. Yehuda, in the name of R. Shimon b. Yohai, says ‘Beauty and strength and riches and honor and wisdom and old age and grey hair and children, all beautify the world,’ as it says: ‘Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is found on the path to righteousness;’ and it says: ‘The glory of young men is their strength, and the majesty of the elders is their grey hair;’(Proverbs 20:29) and it says: ‘Then crown of elders are children’s children and the glory of children is their parents’ (Proverbs 17:6).

This mishna lists multiple ways to bring greater beauty to the world, and two of them are old age and grey hair. Children are also included, offering the sense that a beautiful world stretches across the lifespan. As is typical in rabbinic literature, R. Shimon b. Yohai brings in biblical proof-texts to strengthen his point. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch believes that “the acquisition of long years of living marks the old man as a person to whom honor is due. But a hoary head as such is a mark of distinction only if the life of the man has been a good and righteous one.”

Pitting one rabbinic statement against another, we have to ask if getting old is seen as a positive or a negative in the Talmud.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg in Sage Advice offers his interpretation of the mishna: “…there is strong theme in Talmudic literature – undoubtedly enhanced and made credible by the dualism of body and spirit endemic to Hellenistic culture – that pleasures of the body are unimportant because they are at best fleeting and marginal. At worst, they turn into indulgences and become the enemies of righteous living…” Nevertheless, Rabbi Yitz suggest that this mishna “suggests that a beautiful body is also a value. R. Shimon proclaims that worldly honor for the righteous and a vital, respected old age for the religious are desirable.”

In other words: the answer is both. There may have appropriate pushback in the ancient Jewish world to value age above Hellenic notions of youthful beauty and strength. But this messaging does not tell the whole story. What keeps someone youthful is not changing the way they look but keeping a youthful attitude into old age, one that values curiosity and newness, intelligence and adventure.

Wrinkles are an outward sign that the skin has matured and settled into a face with character, as the Italian actress Anna Magnani once said, “Please don’t retouch my wrinkles. It took me so long to earn them.”

Shabbat Shalom