Seniors, Here Is How Not To Fear Change or Death
My High Holy Day Sermon
It was 38 Rosh Hashanahs ago that I first stood on this Bima. The Bima looks remarkably different and so does the congregation. I was 33 years old with little kids looking out on a massive sea of senior faces with just a smattering of young faces and even less children.
I had been a Rabbi for 7 years and wanted to talk about how to grow a life that involved more Judaism. I wanted to talk about how important it was to raise the kids with a knowledge and love of Judaism. I wanted to convince people to make changes in their lifestyle, to bring kashruth and Shabbat and Talmud Torah into their lives, but alas little of that was relevant to a congregation that was overwhelmingly between 70 and 80 years old, and what did I know about seniors?
I could have used my parents as a model to help but they were only 58 and 56 at the time and boy doesn’t that sound young now?
One congregant enjoyed telling me how he had underwear older than me. I just bit my tongue.
Of course, I read and studied everything I could find in secular and Jewish sources about aging and the elderly. I collected stories and insights and used many of them over the years to explain the line in Shema koleynoo that was repeatedly chanted on Yom Kippur.
“Al tashlichenu leet Ziknah kischlot kochenu al taazvenu. Do not cast us aside in our old age, as our strength diminishes do not abandon us.”
But my knowledge was from text books not life books. It was like the way I counselled congregants going through a divorce. I was well trained and understood what my role was and I was pretty good at it, but after I went through a divorce I became so much better at it because now I had had experiential knowledge and therefore greater empathy.
Knowing about it is one thing, experiencing it is quite another.
You may have heard about the 65-year-old woman who, with the help of a fertility specialist, had a baby. All her relatives came to visit and meet the newest member of their family. When they asked to see the baby, the new mother said, “not yet.”
A little later they asked to see the baby again. Again, the mother said, “not yet.”
Finally, they asked, “When can we see the baby?”
And the mother said, “When the baby cries.”
And they asked, “Why do we have to wait until the baby cries?”
The 65-year-old mother said, “Because I forgot where I put it.”
Today I stand here, not even a kid in my own mind, 71 years old, and old age is not an abstraction but a daily experience. I wake up every morning (thank God so far) and play a game. Which of my many body parts feel sore today?
Which of my friends are moving away to downsize in more expensive homes?
Which of my friends are getting sick and even dying?
Death is not an abstraction. We lost two of our past presidents this year and they were clearly my age contemporaries. One of them was in 2nd grade with me back in Toronto.
So today I am not going to speak to you about raising your kids, though you may have some role still in influencing your grandkids.
I am not going to speak of mass changes in your lifestyle since if you did not make them by now, I doubt you are going to change much at this point.
Instead, I want to share with you some advice for navigating two of the biggest mental issues facing seniors; change and death. Or to put it another way, how to not fear either, less you waste the hopefully good amount of time you have left.
To be a senior is to be daily confronted by change and though you may resist it, it will ultimately be futile. It is happening with or without your consent.
Have you ever been guilty of looking at others your own age and thinking, “Surely I can’t look that old?” A woman wrote the following,
“I was sitting in the waiting room for my first appointment with a new dentist when I noticed his diploma hanging on the wall. It bore his full name and I suddenly remembered a tall, handsome dark-haired boy with the same name. He had been in my high school class some 40-odd years before and I wondered if he could be the same guy I had a secret crush on way back then?
When I got into the treatment room, I quickly discarded any such thought. This balding gray-haired man with the deeply lined face was much too old to have been my secret crush… or was he?
After he examined my teeth, I asked if he had attended Morgan Park High School.
“Yes, I did. I’m a Mustang!” He said, gleaming with pride.
“When did you graduate?” I asked.
“1959. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you were in my class!” I exclaimed.
Then that ugly, old, wrinkled, SOB asked,
“What did you teach?”
We look in the mirror and still imagine that we are who we were and that we matter.
If you are a baby boomer you spent your entire life mattering. Advertisers searched you out from the very beginning. They convinced your parents to buy a certain brand of diapers or formula.
As you grew up education evolved to meet your needs. You reshaped music and the record industry. You were Woodstock nation, anti-draft and anti- Viet Nam War. You created,” sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, and everyone pursued you and your dollars.
You are now officially irrelevant to advertisers and therefore network television. Even though Netflix introduces a new series more regularly than I am, none of them appeal to you.
Do you remember when you watched many sitcoms. How many if any do you watch now? I need HBO and Larry David or I’d watch no comedy. The reason? It isn’t directed to seniors.
Even Before Covid, Conservative Judaism as practiced in so many places, has morphed, often to the point that we may think we are in a reform service.
Social media started off as a fun way to keep up with friends and find old high school crushes and now it is a poisonous terrain, warping people’s minds with the Big and small lies, that encourage people to not vax or mask but to follow Q and his prophecies.
All this is change, and we justifiably may be condemnatory of it but how we handle this change is the key to our mental wellbeing. Change is inevitable and we have to make our peace with it if we are going to enjoy our golden years.
Put yourself into your parents’ shoes for a minute and remember how much change was disapproved of by them.
It is irrelevant if they were right or wrong, change was hard for them even as we pushed it down their throats, but we came out the better for it, and maybe they came around before the end.
There are two stereotypes for being an old person that you can strive for. The crabby complaining old person or the smiling silent but wise person who when asked offers an opinion in a warm and friendly way.
Who do you think makes the better parent, in-law, or grandparent?
Who do you think has less acid in their kishgas?
At the end of every Amida we say a meditation called Elohai netzor…At one point we beseech God to take care of our enemies and then we say , “Aseh lemann shimecha Do it for your own namesake”.
I say to you, adopt the acceptance way of dealing with change, for your own sake!
The second great fear is that of death. In my, as of yet unpublished book called “The Rabbi’s Garden” I addressed this issue in my very last chapter. I would like to conclude by sharing the last chapter with you.
As I write this chapter, I am 71years old. I have been retired from my synagogue for just over 5 years and I have enjoyed every minute of retirement. I enjoy complete control of my time, for the first time in my life.
My parents controlled the first stage of my existence followed by school, career, and family.
I got up every day and looked at a to do list that was generated by everyone else’s needs. Only after completing those tasks did I begin to tend to my needs.
I have no complaint for what was, but I offer no excuse for what is now. It is the freedom I dreamt of, and it is now a reality. I also am aware that I need to enjoy every day because this stage of life won’t last forever.
I have daily aches and pain that now arrive without any apparent cause.
I tire more easily.
I don’t hear everything as clearly as I once did.
I have glasses for reading and distance, and a special pair for working on the computer.
My daily routine begins not with morning prayers but with a slew of pills and vitamins that come out of a container divided into the days of the week.
Thank God, most days I know what day it is without having to check a calendar.
I remember most things, but the recall time is now minutes or days, not seconds. I could win many a Jeopardy game if they allowed a pause button.
I am much more emotional than in the past and I tear up easily, not only in movies, but often watching a feel-good story on the news. I can’t tell you how many tears I shed watching families celebrating their child winning a medal at the Olympics.
I am reflective of the past. I think of legacy all the time, and I know that regardless of how long this period of life continues (and I am in no hurry to end it) it will end one day, and I will die.
I always assumed that thought would frighten if not terrify me, but it doesn’t.
When I was a young Rabbi and called on to perform the funeral of a child or young adult, it was a very difficult and painful task, but it wasn’t personal. There was a unique reason to that death. An accident, a birth defect, a weird infection caught on some exotic trip. There was always a way to explain why what happened to them was unique, a one off, that had nothing to do with me.
When my contemporaries died there was a family medical history, a reckless act, or an emotional or financial crisis that led to a suicide. There were countless reasons for their deaths, all of which I was magically protected from. My ability to practice cognitive dissonance knew no boundaries. Death existed but what did it have to do with me?
Lately my denial skills have waned, together with all my other skills. Too many people in the news are dying at near my age or younger. I am no longer the overachieving kid. I am no longer the youngest one in the room, just the opposite.
One of my friends and colleagues told me of a recent dinner with a few of his old-time friends that he hadn’t seen in a while. During the meal he was shocked at how many times the phrase. “of blessed memory” came up in conversation.
I no longer deny that death is a personal reality whether it comes in a year, a decade, or if you are listening God, at least 2 decades.
Now really is the time for me to fear death, but I don’t.
I wasn’t quite sure why until this year as I was gathering in the last string beans of the year. I was shocked to realize that my string beans were comforting me.
I love growing string beans. You put a seed 1 inch in the ground and several days later something subterranean is pushing up. After breaking through the soil, they quickly emerge erect, unfurl two leaves and daily show demonstrable growth and secondary leaves. Shortly after, they present the first flowers that will become string beans.
Of all the plants in my garden they are one of the fastest to go from seed to harvest so they give rapid positive reinforcement. Even better is the fact that the more you harvest the beans the quicker they are to offer more flowers and therefore more beans.
You can go daily into the garden and pick beans for that day’s dinner. After a short break the new beans arrive again and the daily picking resumes.
Of course, nothing in life is that good so there is a catch. The quality of the beans diminishes in successive harvests.
The beans in the first two picks are beautiful. Long slender green beans that detach easily from the bush. They are crispy, tasty with little to no development of large seeds inside.
With the passage of time the beans are shorter and stubby. They are less tasty and with larger developed seeds. They do not detach easily from the plant, either breaking in two or pulling off the entire branch, leaf, and all.
The leaves by now are turning brown and drying out. In a little while when picking the last string beans the entire plant can be uprooted.
I have just described an entire life cycle from birth to death, and yet as I was pulling the last stragglers of the crop, I was overwhelmed with a sense of what a great life the plant had.
During its life it grew strong and accomplished.
It raised many potential progenies. It did what it was created to do. It did it well and lived to see success and to be appreciated. It produced well into old age and finally arrived at the one last point that was always there and inevitable. Its life was never about the destination, but always about the journey.
I identified its journey with mine. I am 71, I too had once been young and strong and productive. I had 3 pulpits over 40 years and led the last congregation for 33 years. I have received many professional accolades and held interesting leadership positions. I hosted a television show, published a book, served on the law committee of my movement for over 2 decades and for me most spectacularly of all, I gave three invocations before Miami Dolphins home games, and had a two out of three-victory record.
I was blessed with the opportunity to touch so many people’s lives, and to be helpful in times of joy and sorrow. I met many famous and important people and travelled through most of the world.
I am blessed with a wonderful family. I have a loving wife, and my three children are all college graduates, happily married and have produced seven grandchildren. They are proud practicing Jews, active in their communities, and helping others along the way.
I chose to retire when I did, not because my congregation wanted me to, but because I could see the changes that were happening to me.
Like the great string bean plant, my “ leaves” were starting to dry and wither, my produce was not up to the earlier standard, and I didn’t want to be the last string bean on the plant that uprooted the entire bush when it was pulled.
I looked at my life through the trajectory of the bean plant and realized it has been a great life and hopefully it will continue in a new way and with a different agenda, but I will eventually be unable to escape the inevitable destination.
So why fear it?
It was preordained. No living creature lives forever. No matter what waits for me in the future, the accomplishments of this life remain and cannot be taken away. It was not a life wasted. It was a life lived.
As in the garden, the bugs, the diseases, the challenges of weather, all came to me but never cut short the life I was given.
The “beans” have been harvested and consumed, and the seeds live on in others that have come along, and who knows, maybe I will see another generation if I am blessed to see great grandchildren. So, thank you string beans, you have illuminated the road ahead and taken away any fear of death.
I hope I have helped take away your fear of change and death and may this year of 5782 be one of joy and acceptance of good health and of new deeds; and if you ever feel a little in the dumps, go kiss a string bean.
Please share with Family and friends and especially any seniors orf options.
There is a rumor going around that as a retired Rabbi I am no longer doing lifecycle services. Nothing could be further from the truth and I especially enjoy marrying the kids that I named and or conducted their Bar/ Bat Mitzvah services.