The world is getting older — not just the cosmos, but the people in it.
In the West, at least, younger people are reproducing less and older people are living longer.
In North America, Europe and Israel, the percentage of people over 65 is expected to rise markedly in the coming decades. It was projected recently that in Europe by 2025, there will be as many people over 65 as there will be in the workforce.
Jews, as usual, are part of these trends. The senior segment in Jewish communities (the United States, Israel and Europe) is 20 percent, slightly higher than the general populations, and growing rapidly.
Medical advances help life expectancies to rise, and with people settling all over the globe, leaving parents alone in their hometowns or in retirement areas or facilities, the care of the elderly has become both a big business and a big headache, for families, community organizations and governments.
The Bible presents pictures of old age both idyllic and starkly realistic. Leaving aside mythical characters like Methuselah, who lived 969 years, we are told that Abraham lived till the ripe old age of 175, marrying another woman and having six more children after Sarah died.
The zkenim (elders) were an important group for the social/political hierarchy and a source of guidance for the individual. Yet the infirmities of age also were well known. The psalmist’s painful plea, “Cast me not off in the time of old age; when my strength fails, forsake me not,” is included five times in the Yom Kippur liturgy. As appealing as it sounds, we Jews do not pray, like Bob Dylan: May your hands always be busy,/ May your feet always be swift. May your song always be sung, / And may you stay forever young.
The human body does not work that way. Seeking to stop the natural processes would constitute a tefillat shav, a “useless prayer,” what psychologists might call denial.
Of course, such is not the approach of modern society. There are people and industries, from branches of the medical profession to major pharmaceutical companies, which thrive on the desires of people to disguise gray hair, to remove wrinkles, and to keep bodily appearance and functions youthful.
Interestingly, the Torah offers three prescriptions for long life — honoring one’s parents, not taking a bird’s eggs in the mother’s presence, and the use of honest weights and measures.
The Torah is concerned more about how we behave toward others than how we look to them.
If we take the Talmud literally, we have only our own forefathers Abraham and Jacob to blame. “Before Abraham there was no old age, and before Jacob there was no illness.” Until Abraham, people simply lived their lives, features constant, until their time came. “People who saw Abraham thought he was Isaac,” the Talmud continues. “People who saw Isaac thought he was Abraham, so Abraham prayed for old age, as it says, ‘and Abraham was old, advanced in years.’ ”
Abraham was doing just the opposite of trying to stay young. Looking old invited respect; age was a sign of wisdom. Jacob prayed for illness, the Talmud explains, because he wanted a period of notice before death to call his sons in and bless them. Little could Jacob have imagined that the few days that he requested could, by our time, extend to many years, despite physical and mental deterioration.
Abraham did the opposite of trying to stay young. Looking old invited respect; age was a sign of wisdom.
Modern medicine can take credit for many miracles. But for the incapacitated, these advances have extended old age, not life.
In Greek mythology, the Sphinx sat outside of Thebes and asked passersby: “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?”
Many unfortunates died for not solving the riddle, until Oedipus gave the answer: “Man, who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks on two legs as an adult and with a cane in old age.” Life neatly divided, like Gaul, into three parts.
“All the world’s a stage,” Jaques says in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” “And one man in his time plays many parts. His acts being seven ages.” Man becomes elderly in the sixth, where he begins to lose his charm, both physical and mental, and shrinks in size and stature.
The rabbis predated Shakespeare by over a millennium. In Pirkei Avot, they delineate 14 stages, the last five devoted to the “Third Age” and reaching the finish line: “At 50 [one can give] counsel; at 60, [one is] elderly; at 70, [one reaches] old age; at 80, [one has] renewed vitality; at 90, [one has] a bent body; at 100, [one is] as good as dead, having passed and ceased from the world.”
The numbers here are a literary device; the physical and mental states alluded to can happen at any age. In our world, insurance companies and social welfare agencies have “ADL (Activities of Daily Living) tests” to determine disability or who “needs assistance,” the ability to dress oneself, feed oneself, use the toilet. The Talmud did, too. One is considered “young and healthy,” as opposed to “old and sick” if he can “stand on one foot and put on and take off his shoes.”
Aging, on the one hand, presents opportunities. “Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be, / The last of life, for which the first was made,” Robert Browning, wrote in the poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” in about 1862. Many are able to finally pursue hobbies and learn new disciplines.
On the other hand, old age presents challenges. Matthew Arnold responded to Browning with a far more melancholy view of age: “Ah, ’tis not what in youth we dreamed ’twould be,” (“Growing Old”).
Those who wish their friends live “to 120,” as Jews commonly do, might consider whether they really want this fate for those dear to them.
This essay was edited by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Deborah Silver at American Jewish University for aju.org.