People used to comfort my aging father, of blessed memory, telling him that getting old isn’t great, but “it beats the alternative.” To this, he answered: “Yes, but not by much.”
Two of my biggest fears as a teenager were dying young and getting old. Now that I have successfully beaten the first rap of dying young, I am doing everything I can to not get old.
I have already researched Jewish antidotes to aging. One trick is to live with childlike enthusiasm about life, with a particular focus of living in the present. New activities facilitate this mindset, so when my cousin Rochel asked me to help her with the weekly pre-Shabbat program at a nearby assisted-living facility, I agreed to try.
The first few weeks were difficult. My own mother had passed away in February, and all those white-haired ladies with walkers reminded me of her. I couldn’t help wondering if her last few years would have been more enjoyable had she lived in a facility like this.
There was also the challenge of getting ready for Shabbat an hour earlier. Theoretically, I could do the math (subtract one hour) and plan accordingly, but whether Shabbat starts at 4:30 in winter or 8:30 in summer, I’m always rushing at the last minute. So far, I’ve been able to get to the facility on time (well, almost), and I enjoy an unexpected benefit before I even arrive: in the 10 minutes it takes to drive there, my whole body sighs with relief. I’ve got one whole hour before candle-lighting (well, almost), and all I need to do is bring Shabbat to my new friends.
The residents probably don’t notice that I’m wearing the same black dress I wore the week before. (I haven’t managed to leave enough time to look for something else to wear.) And if they do, they certainly don’t mind. This is the gift of wisdom that comes with years. (In Hebrew, the word for “old” when applied to people is zaken. It’s defined as, “one who has acquired wisdom,” a contraction of the phrase zeh shekanah chochmah.)
It’s also what makes this program so powerful for me. How many years’ worth of Shabbat blessings have these women said? How much joy and pain have they shared with G‑d? I don’t need to use my imagination; I can hear the songs of their lives come through their blessings. In the hour we spend lighting candles together in the chapel (fire laws prohibit residents from lighting candles in their rooms), we transcend time, space, and of course, age. In our essence, each one of us is our matriarch, Sarah.
The residents are easy to please. We reminisce. Sometimes, we sing songs. And we make Torah relevant. Last week, we established that if we’re still alive, it means that G‑d wants something from us here in this world. (They liked that.) We discussed how G‑d especially appreciates the efforts of someone who is not naturally virtuous but becomes virtuous. (A few of us then shared our challenges in trying to do the right thing, after which I assured everyone, “What happens at here, stays here.” But when all is said and done, the residents probably get the greatest joy from seeing the young girls who come from our community to help with the program.
You don’t have to be Jewish to know that when you give to others, you’re the one who gains. This is true for me every time I rush home to light my Shabbat candles after I’ve helped my new friends light theirs: I feel my own heart somehow fuller, and I feel my own flame somehow burning brighter.