December 17, 2018

Rosh Hashana: Embracing our elders

We are spiritually ambitious at this time of year. We reflect, we repent, we make resolutions. We study our faults and mistakes of the past year and commit to being better people in the coming year. We ask for forgiveness and forgive in return. We listen to brilliant sermons that only accentuate our spiritual work.

For the average Jew, this is a busy time of year. But what about for the elders of our community?

What’s going through the minds of people who are, say, 90 years old? When they look back on the past year, are they thinking about their mistakes or about their ailments? When they look to the coming year, are they thinking about spiritual refinements or are they simply hoping to make it through another year?

How can you beat making it through another year?

When it comes to life itself, Judaism is of two minds. On the one hand, the highest Jewish value is life itself. Saving one life is like saving an entire world. A surgeon fights to save the life of a criminal just as passionately as he fights to save the life of a righteous person.

On the other hand, Judaism is very much about what we do with our lives. It’s not enough to live. We have to strive to make a difference, to refine our characters, to add goodness to the world.

When we arrive at the High Holy Days, the more ambitious value clearly takes precedence. For our community’s elders, though, I’m guessing they’ll be thinking more about the gift of being alive. They’ll be spending their Holy Days counting not their sins or mistakes — but their blessings. They’ll be too busy thanking God for the blessing of life to ask for much else.

Asking for forgiveness? I really hope they don’t. I hope my mother never calls me to say, “If I did anything to hurt you, my son, please forgive me.”

Forgive my mother? There’s nothing my mother could do to hurt me, even if she tried. All I have to do is recall the image of her taking four buses each way during the Canadian winters to make $50 a week as a dressmaker while raising and feeding five kids in a tiny apartment. She has a lifetime forgiveness package with me.

And she’s not alone. All elders deserve special treatment. I don’t want to see my mother try to “improve.” As far as I’m concerned, she’s perfect exactly as she is, and so is every elderly person that I know. 

As much as I love Jewish rituals, they don’t apply equally to every Jew. For those who have reached the last chapter of their lives, the focus of their High Holy Days shouldn’t be on self-improvement. Sure, everyone can always improve, but our elders can improve and enrich everyone around them with their lifetime of wisdom and stories.

I don’t know about you, but I have a weakness for old stories. I love to hear how Edna Weiss dealt with anti-Semitism in Angeleno Heights in the 1920s; or how Lou Kestenbaum stumbled onto plastics and became a mogul; or how the late Eva Brown found a way to celebrate Chanukah in a concentration camp; or how Monty Hall’s life was changed by a generous playboy in Winnipeg over 75 years ago; or how Jerry Bubis used to hang out with Abraham Joshua Heschel; or how, more than 65 years ago, Sol Teichman convinced a landlord to let him use a New York basement as a social club to bring the Jews of a neighborhood together.

Whether or not they are wealthy, our elders are filled with thousands of delicious stories. It’s not enough to honor our elderly donors with plaques at fundraising galas — we need their stories as much as we need their money.

For the elderly who are just getting by, the same thought applies. It’s not enough to just take care of them. We can nourish their souls and alleviate their loneliness by listening to their stories and seeking their wisdom.

As people enter their final years, they have an even greater need to feel needed. The elders of our community are a blessing, not a burden. During these High Holy Days, let’s be spiritually ambitious and ask them to bless us with their stories.

Shanah tovah.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at