Chaye Sarah II - GROWING OLD GRACEFULLY
IN THE PORTION of the Torah which was read this morning we are told, "And Abraham grew old and came into days and God blessed Abraham with everything" (Gen. 24: 1).
The question that poses itself is: how is one blessed with everything in old age? The Yalkut (Gen. 103) supplies several answers by quoting a number of biblical verses and applying them to Abraham. Here are three of them which can serve as guides to a happy and useful old age. "Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord, and who shall stand in His holy place" (Psalms 24:3). "Strength and dignity are her clothing; and she laugheth at the time to come" (Proverbs 31: 25). "The crowning glory of old age is in the path of righteousness" Ibid. 17:31).
From time immemorial man has had the desire to remain young. When he began to feel that his strength was beginning to wane and that his days and years were slipping away, he was prepared to do almost anything to retrieve the past. We are told that Ponce de Leon spent a lifetime in a vain search for the fountain of youth. Novelists, dramatists and poets have written numerous volumes on this intriguing subject. One of the great masterpieces in world literature, Goethe's Faust , deals in part with this theme.
Now let me make it clear at the outset that I know of no religious objection to trying to be physically healthy and strong. On the contrary, one of the things we pray for when we bentch Rosh Chodesh is chayim shel chilutz atzamot . We ask for a life of bodily vigor that we may be physically fit and mentally alert.
I do object, however, to those who refuse to face the facts and will not act their age; who do utterly ridiculous things in order to be considered young. I find it hard to tolerate those who spend fortunes in their "twilight zone" on plastic surgery and potions in an effort to become young again, oon ess helft vee a toiten bankess.
I pity those who close cheir minds to the fact that they have passed the stages of adolescence, maturity and middle life, but who continue to dress, talk, dance and carry on as if they were in their teens.
A wise person realizes that life is a cycle of stages and seasons. Just as trees cannot forever remain saplings, just as springtime is followed by summer, summer by fall, and fall by winter, so is it with man. Whether we like it or not, days go by and years roll on and we change. In describing the human morning they are like grass that springs up afresh; by evening it is cut down and withered" (Ps. 90:5-6).
There is the familiar story of an elderly man who complained to his doctor about his aches and pains. After a careful examination, the doctor said to him, "My friend, I am sorry but there is nothing I can prescribe for you that will make you younger." To which the man replied, "Who wants you to make me younger! All I want you to do for me is to make it possible for me to become older!"
The Yalkut maintains that old age should not make us despair, for there is a way to grow old gracefully. It is the way of Abraham who personified the verses quoted above, and therefore was "blessed with everything."
One of the glorious characteristics of youth is its tremendous capacity for dreams, its firm belief in goodness, kindness and justice. As we grow older some of us tend to become weary, cynical and pessimistic. We throw our ideals overboard in the hope of making our boat easier to navigate in the face of the turbulent waters of life. The Yalltut testifies that Abraham not only ascended the mountain of the Lord but remained there unto the end of his days. He did not strip himself of the noblest spiritual dreams of youth, but remained a vibrant and creative idealist until the end.
Let me read to you a poem by H. S. Fritch, entitled "How Old Are You?" which makes this point clear.
Age is a quality of mind. If you have left your dreams behind, If hope is cold, If you no longer look ahead, If your ambitions' fires are dead, Then you are old.
But if from life you take the best, And if in life you keep tbe jest, If love you hold, No mattes how the years go by, No matter how the birthdeys fly, You are not old.
The next thing we are told about Abraham is that he grew in learning all the time; that he was thirsty for the word of God and kept adding to his fund of knowledge. The Yalkut interprets the verse "Strength and dignity are her clothing" as zeh levushah shel Torah , as referring to the mantle of learning, the garments of knowledge.
Many of the immortal artists of the Renaissance period produced their great works late in life. Da Vinci, Bellini, Titian, and Michelangelo achieved greatness when they were advanced in years. Goethe wrote Faust when he was past eighty, and Moses worked until the age of one hundred and twenty. An engraving of the sirteenth century shows an old man sitting in a child's chair. The inscription above the engraving is Ancora Impora --"I still learn." Michelangelo used to repeat this phrase often as he kept working on his masterpieces in old age.
Long ago Hillel proclaimed, "He who does not increase knowledge decreases it; he who does not study is not worthy of life" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:13). We either go forward or backward; up or down.
We live in a world in which there are new ideas and new developments every day. There are a myriad of old things we do not yet know. This is particularly true with respect to Jewish knowledge. How many Jews know the Bible, the Mishnah, the history of their people, Jewish customs and laws? When people retire they have no longer the excuse that lack of time is responsible for their ignorance of Judaisn. Why not spend the "golden age" in supplementing and adding to one's score of knowledge?
The third condition which was present in Abraham's old age, and which we ought to emulate, is maaseh hatzedakah , works of righteousness and benevolence. Nothing deepens and broadens life more than the assumptions of new duties and responsibilities which help others.
I know elderly people, in good health, who spend the twilight years of their life sitting on benches in the park, or walking aimlessly in the street, or sitting near a window and staring at passers-by. Think of it! There is a tremendous shortages of nurses and orderlies in hospitals; synagogues need worshippers and workers; Israel is in desperate need of help. With all this to be done these people spend their leisure years in idleness and boredom. Compare them with those who volunteer their services to hospitals and homes for the aged, who attend classes in Talmud, Mishnah or Jewish history, who read a good book or labor in the vineyard of the Lord; compare them with people, not very young in age but young at heart, who do not stay home and vegetate because they know there is work to be done and help to be offered--and you will know what I mean. These followers of Abraham are a blessing to themselves and to their community. Their labors and friendships keep them occupied and interested, and they have no time to feel sorry for themselves. They forget their twinges, aches and pains, and by making themselves useful, are having a grand time.
The French artist Miller once said to his students, "The end of the day is the proof of a picture. That which stands the test of the twilight hour is true art." Similarly that person who stands the test of the twilight hour of life has passed the test of character with flying colors. Like Abraham he can say that he was "blessed with everything."