Perspectives for Elul on aging

Each morning of Elul, the sounding of the shofar proudly says to each of us, “You are here – they were here – your children will be here.”

August 4, 2013 21:30
4 minute read.
Men blowing shofars to help the unmarried find matches at the ceremony at the grave of rabbi

Men blowing shofars 370. (photo credit: Ben Sales/JTA)

When you’re 23 you know that in 20 years, you’re going to be 43. Most folks say – that’s a trillion years away. But when you’re 63, you know that, in 20 years, you may not be. So, as Elul approaches, you should get very selective about how you spend your time.

All of us have heard that people wonder how much they would change if they could live their lives backward, acquiring at life’s beginning the lessons they had learned at its end. Our lives could be greatly enriched if we were able to imbibe not just Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of Our Fathers”), as we do this time of the year, but also pirkei sabim, (“the wisdom of our grandparents”). There is quite a bit they could offer us.

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The following is an anecdote from American lore: When the noted judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes, was still active on the US Supreme Court, he and justice Louis Brandeis would take walks every afternoon. On one of these occasions Holmes, then 92, paused to look with real admiration at a beautiful young girl who passed them. They stopped, and the elder said to the younger with a sigh. “Louis, oh to be 10 years younger again.”

Halfway between my 40th and 50th birthdays, a big change came over me. For the first time in my life, I was confronted by the thought that my years past almost certainly outnumbered the years ahead.

At some time in our lives, we all must face this. What can we do to lessen that shock? We can write, be it diaries or letters or articles.

We can record our thoughts by working out the questions we can answer – or by having someone else: our children or oral history professionals quiz us for the record – future record of course.

At this time, when amazing inventions are bought for as much as a billion dollars, we can sit down, surround ourselves with talented people and invent. This is not for the money, but for everlasting name recognition.

My uncle, Prof. Abraham Geffen, specialized in the field of radiology, invented the “Geffen Ruler,” to measure certain organ movements on an X-ray. Who knows? The “Berman mouth bite,” the “Cohen Internet Clipper,” or even the “Levy cell-locket” may come through your brain and your hands.

I learned this from a Talmudic sage one summer at Camp B’nai B’rith. In his lecture he said emphatically that, "A midlife crisis is merely God’s way of making us ask ourselves if we are living to our full potential, of making us take the responsibility for that within which remains unlived.”

Now that I am in the middle of my seventh decade, I hope that I can honestly say that I experienced the joy of passing on hochma “wisdom” to younger people.

A person, not seen or heard from for 20 years, but whom I once knew well, brightened my day: “David,” he wrote, “every week or so I say to someone in my bakery shop, ‘David taught me how to treat people this way.’” I never realized what I had done, but now I have at least one point in my favor. I am sure that as Elul arrives you, too, can record the good points you have accumulated. Don’t just repent in the days ahead, calculate all the “positive stuff” with which you have filled your days.

The question is, just as we squeeze notes into spaces in the Kotel, how can we make sure to focus on the spaces in our lives that wait anxiously for us to take an interest, so they too can be filled.

My friends, the consensus may be that with aging we either rust with “disuse” or grow musty with “stagnation.”

But – it can be different. If you have a feeling that there is something special you are endowed with, a talent which can be well-utilized, grab hold of yourself and give it a try. Even if you do not succeed wildly, the effort will add a dimension to your life you never expected.

Dor holech, dor ba (“a generation comes – a generation goes”), Ecclesiastes informs. What this means is that each of us is a significant link in the chain of generations.

A wonderful function of the computer is that its innards can reach out to the past and pinpoint those ancestors of ours. We may never have seen their faces, but when we truly know that they existed and that is why we are here – our personal being can take on new meaning. Do we have to spend hours digging deeply and becoming aware of the circle of life they led? Yes, if we so choose. Geneologists daily make discoveries related to human beings.

Tiku Bashofar (“Blow the shofar”): Each morning of Elul, the sounding of the shofar proudly says to each of us, “You are here – they were here – your children will be here.” Now it’s our turn to grab what we have, both character and money, and leave an inheritance, whatever it may be, to shape the future. Am Yisrael hai (“The people of Israel lives”) now and for eons to come, through us.

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