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Aging Is for Apes

Aging Is for Apes


“Old people are apes,” said Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk.

It begins as soon as you figure you know who you are. From that point on, you simply ape the character you’ve assigned yourself—and you get worse and worse at it as you go. And that’s called growing old.

Which is now becoming a major issue for me. For years my motto was, “I have found the elixir of eternal youth, and it is immaturity.” When people would ask, “Where did you grow up?” I would respond, “Why do you make assumptions?”

But hey, I just rolled over the 60 mark a few weeks back. “Old people are apes.”I’ve got to gain at least some semblance of dignity. I’m a grandfather, for heaven’s sake, several times over. People come asking for advice, as though I learned something from all my mistakes.

But old? G‑d forbid. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov agreed with me. “To become old,” he said, “is a grave sin.”

It makes sense. Life is forever new. “Old” is something that sits there, looking the same today as yesterday, as it will tomorrow—just a little, well, older. Here’s a tidbit: “Old” and “sleeping” are spelled exactly the same in Hebrew, ישן. You get old by sleeping through life.

Hebrew is neat. In all of Hebrew literature, you’ll never find the term “old” applied to a living being. Wine can be old. A house can be old. You could be reading this article in two months from now, and by then, by Internet standards, it will be old. But there’s no such thing as person who’s a ישן man or woman. You say zaken, and that, they say, is a contraction of the phrase zeh shekanah chochmah—one who has acquired wisdom. But in Hebrew, even an animal is not called old.

So I figure I have two things to do with life. One is to grow up. The other is to remain forever a child. If it’s a standoff between the two, the second trumps, hands down.

But is there really a conflict? Could it be that growing up is all about remaining a child as long as you can?

That sounds ridiculous, but then so does quantum physics, aerodynamics and Frisbee football. And like all that stuff, it works.

Even the ancient pharaoh who interviewed Jacob got it. He In Hebrew, there’s no such thing as an old man.didn’t ask Jacob, “How old are you, old man?” He asked, “How many are the days of your life?” As though days are not things that do something to you (i.e., make you old), but things you do something with—i.e., collect.

How do you collect days? By starting each one as a newborn child, full of wonder, entering each experience expecting to be surprised, always willing to try new things, putting all your strength into pulling yourself forward no matter how little you appear to move, standing up again no matter how many times you’ve fallen down, and running ahead no matter how many times you smash into a wall. Laughing at stupid things, celebrating the small stuff and smiling to any stranger.

Never decide, “I’m a pessimist; that’s just who I am.” Tomorrow you can be an optimist.

Never decide, “I’m not a believer. I don’t do Shabbat candles. I don’t wrap leather boxes. I’m not going to be a hypocrite.”

You’re a hypocrite only when you’re stuck in the mud and pretend you’re still moving. But if you’re alive, you do it by changing your mind and changing your way of life, again and again. Because the only guy who never changes is the one six feet under. Or the one who stopped being a child and started being an ape.

Once you start repeating the same day over and over again, once you say, “Been there, done that, am that,” once you’ve decided who you are and what this world is about, you’ve stopped collecting days, you’ve stopped acquiring wisdom, and a part of you has already died. The days are collecting you. They’ve started making you old.

My father-in-law, You get old when you stop growing up, and you grow up by remaining a Argentinean Kabbalist who doubled by day as a professor of computer science, used to say, “There are people who have seventy years of experience, and there are people who have experienced a year seventy times.”

It turns out you get old when you stop growing up, and you grow up by remaining a child. Because every day has a new lesson to teach, one that no other day can ever tell you. And that’s how you gain wisdom, to become a zaken.

Describing Abraham, Sarah and King David in their later years, the Torah says, “They came into their days.” They invested all of themselves into each and every day they lived. That’s a lot of wisdom to acquire. A lot of childhood to share.

As for me, I’m planning to live forever. So far, so good. Each day is another forever.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Anonymous January 26, 2016

Thank you, Rabbi.
A great article.
May you have a lot of naches from your children and grandchildren. Reply

Anonymous January 17, 2016

Was feeling down, now find myself smiling. Thank you for sharing your wisdom Rabbi. As always, a pleasure to read your articles. Reply

Leibele Hawaii January 15, 2016

Why do you assume Apes get old, in the negative sense? Nonhuman primates, particularly the Great Apes, of whom we are one, are particularly alive in every moment, present, and capable of change and growth. See "Koko's" advice to Humanity on YouTube. Reply

Daniel Henry Thomas Costa Rica January 7, 2016

a childish question immensely admired and respected Rabbi Freeman, now that you've raised the point of remaining as a child, I've emboldened enough as to pose a very childish question that I've been wanting to ask for a long time...

now feeling this is (hopefully) my opportunity:
dear Rabbi:

Why is it that Miri's dog (please see Kab-Alef-Bet) seems to be like a live robot, and how is it that he can actually fly? Reply

Anonymous December 30, 2015

Incredible thoughts and words to live by. Such wisdom. Thank you!! Reply

sunil subba India December 18, 2015

Yes, your advice is correct as learning is forever for the person interested in discovering new aspects of knowledge.The discovery channel is one channel which asks us,What have you discovered today?.Even the Phd professor in english wont know all the english words as the journey is forever.We may get old but we may be young at heart. Reply

Clifford Rothband FL May 3, 2017
in response to sunil subba:

Amazing is the cumulative affect of words. I am in my seventies yet I hear a word from my youth, spoken or written in another language the memories return. Is it in my[ Jewish genes] that i recognize words from other languages. The words Munchkin [the name Mnunchkin] come to mind or simple word like Minyan make my thoughts go wild. Always a child, why grow up? Reply

oscar MW December 17, 2015

Then I should be pleased a co-worker once gave me a Coffee cup with the inscription; "Your only young once but immaturity lasts forever." And to think I was slightly annoyed by her gesture. Looks as though time and space have a way of blending into an experienced persons living towards knowing G-d as more than a concept or an external demand. I enjoyed the article greatly. Thank You Reply

Rolando Bartolome Chesapeake December 17, 2015

An eye opener; I just gained a whole new perspective. To life!
Thank you. Reply

David Sebaoun Brooklyn December 14, 2015

Thank you a good emotional pep will last me for a few days Reply

peter white donegal, ireland December 13, 2015

age an elderly priest who lives near me said he was asked recently when did you decide to become a priest? his answer - when i got up this morning. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA December 13, 2015

May we all choose to be on His side. If all the doors seem closed, and you have no hope, continue working hard and trust in Hashem for help; consider this as a down payment.
He designed this world, and He can open new doors for you, especially doors you never imagined or thought possible; doors more profound than your wildest dreams.
Hashem knows the way(s) out of suffering, so it makes no sense to be angry and shake your fists at Him. The better way is to encourage folks to be on His side.
As in the case of Joseph, when you thought it was all over, Hashem can send a party to rescue from a pit. Reply

Jorge Qro. Mexico December 11, 2015

Shalom Aleichem, Peace upon you all. Congratulations Rabbi Freeman, great words come from a life lived greatly. I invite you all to say LeChaim! To Life! in this luminous Chanukah. Reply

Heidi D December 11, 2015

This is a great piece Rabbi! Reply

David Budapest December 9, 2015

Practical(ly) literature There is just unbelievable depth in your quality writings, Rabbi. A pleasure to read, a treasure to know. Reply

Earl King December 8, 2015

Thank You Thank you Rabbi for those words of wisdom. They truly were a blessing to me as a read each sentence. May The Almighty bless and keep you Reply

Gedalia Goldstein Rechovote December 8, 2015

My dearest Rabbi Tzvee- But you, routed in the Holy souls of India, & your wife in the Holy souls of Argentina- how do you expect us simple people to fare? Reply

Lev Yitzhak meRoma Rome December 8, 2015

As I approach the mythic mark of 60 as well, and am confronted in these days with personal and public tests of courage and determination, your humain and heartfelt thoughts warm the soul. Thank you! Reply

Zeynep December 8, 2015

Tzvi Freeman @60? Never never would have thought. Judging from the voice emanating from your articles I guessed you at around 40, Rabbi; a 'childish' 40 at that (well this within the context of this lovely article, has to be taken as a compliment Rabbi!). But it was quite a curious 40 I have to admit, because there were lines in your writings whose wisdom and novelty would sustain me for days on end and which I contemplatively woud integrate into my existence and grow indeed younger. The latest of such pearls putting a totally different spin on my outlook to life, I encountered in your latest writing on Lech Lecha; there you had said: "because the past is defined by the future to which we lead it". And this article here I shall keep for my 60th.

Happy infinity Rabbi Freeman. Reply

Anonymous December 7, 2015

inspiring thought an author (his name I cannot recall) once said that to unlock the essence of a culture/people, you look for words that don't exist in their language , so it was quite inspiring to learn that there aren't any vocabulary that combines "old" with any living thing in Hebrew.
In my language there's 100s of them, old to ancient to mystical (that means you're beyond old)! we try to look after our health to age well and to be disability free in our "old" age, but reading this article reminded me that we need to watch the kind of limiting things we are already starting to tell ourselves daily. Reply

Peninah December 7, 2015

Wonderful! Amen.I am a big fan of these humor-filled articles.True indeed.Please continue being a child at heart,continue dreaming big and keep the humor fresh.May Hashem bless you and your loved ones abundantly for using your lives to edify others with the wisdom and knowledge of Hashem.This way you will indeed live forever!
L'Chaim and happy belated birthday wishes and of course Happy Chanukah to you and everybody around the world!!! Reply

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