Every Shabbat morning during services at the Jewish Geriatric Home, our residents, our volunteers, our guests and I pause to offer thanksgiving for the joyous events in our lives. There is always a simcha or two for us to celebrate— a birthday or an anniversary, a grandchild’s engagement, a great grandchild’s Bris— always a happy occurrence.
One Shabbat morning, I announced that a well-loved resident was celebrating a milestone birthday in the coming week and I wished that she live to the proverbial age of 120 years. At that moment, a friend of hers raised her voice and corrected me. The friend said firmly, “No, Rabbi, you should wish her 120 years and three months.”
“Why the extra three months?” I replied, quite perplexed.
“Why the extra three months!?” the friend responded, sounding surprised at my ignorance. “Rabbi,” she declared, “Why should she spoil her last birthday? Don’t you want her to enjoy her party?”
So I wished our birthday celebrant the blessings of one hundred and twenty years and three months of life with happiness and health.
One hundred and twenty years is a long time to live. Only one or two people may have achieved such an age in modern times, and some scientists believe that our physical bodies are unable to hold up much longer than that. What, then, is the source of the Jewish tradition of wishing a person 120 years of healthy and happiness?
One of the sources for this wish comes from this week’s Torah portion, Vayelech. In it, Moses announces to the Jewish people that he has lived one hundred and twenty years and has come to the end of his life. As he approaches his death, he shares with them some of his insights into their future and warns them of the temptations that await them in the Land of Canaan. He reiterates his support of his chosen successor, Joshua, and exhorts him and the Israelites to be brave and strong as they continue their adventures in their new home. By praying that our elderly have the opportunity to reach Moses’ life span, we are reminding them that we cherish them as we cherish Moses. Even in old age, they, like Moses, remain our teachers, our leaders and our fountains of inspiration.
What is especially meaningful to me is the honesty with which Moses describes his condition as he approaches the end of his life. “I am one hundred and twenty years old,” Moses says, “and I can no longer come and go.” (Deuteronomy 31:2) Although there are other descriptions in the Torah of Moses’ physical condition in his extreme old age that portray him as much more lively (34:7), here Moses refers directly to his impairments due to old age. As a person who spends so much of his time with our senior seniors in the Jewish Geriatric Home the image brought forth by Moses’ words sticks in my mind.
I think about the respect our ancestors showed Moses in his final days. I am humbled at the wisdom he shared with them as his life was coming to an end. I am astonished at the courage with which he faced his death. And I gain a deeper respect for the people I serve each time I consider this passage.
Like Moses, many of our most elderly are homebound. Only with great difficulty can they leave their homes, apartments and residence facilities. Many of them can barely move at all.
Although physically impaired, Moses was lucky. His mind was intact and he could still teach and instruct his people by his powerful words. Many of the elderly with whom I interact are not as fortunate as Moses. The ravages of disease and the gradual breakdown of the mind and body by whatever cause during old age have robbed them of their ability to share thoughts and ideas. Their intellectual agility has left them just as their physical strength has deserted them.
But the fact that a person’s ability to express herself verbally is impaired does not mean she cannot inspire and teach. One does not need to be a Moses to transmit a powerful message.
Everyone has something to share: an experience, an insight, a memory, a feeling, an attitude to life, even a sense of being. If we don’t seem to get a person’s message, we should not assume that the person is not communicating with us. The problem may be with our receivers. We may need to tune our eyes, ears, hearts and minds to the person’s unique frequency.
Although it takes a while for children to learn to speak, no one doubts the ability of an infant to share happiness and love with those close. Doting parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles can hear a baby’s words even before the baby learns to pronounce them. We are not surprised at our ability to read our children’s hearts and comprehend their messages to us.
It is the same with our impaired elderly, who at the end of their long lives can neither come nor go. They, too, can share their message of love and hope with us if we would only try to listen.
We have the tools to help them along. Sometimes all we need to do is set the appropriate mood, perhaps by sharing an old memory. Pictures of familiar faces and places open their hearts and ours. At this time of the year, High Holy Day celebrations are important. The sights and sounds of the High Holy Days evoke powerful feelings and deep-seated longings and hopes. The aromas from the Holy Day kitchen or even a taste of honey cake can open up lines of communication with the elderly, enabling us to receive their blessings.
Even though our seniors may not be able to put forth an elaborate plan of living as Moses does for us in the Book of Deuteronomy, their message to us at the end of their days captures the essence of his words. They want us to be menschen, human beings full of love and concern for all those with whom we share our world, including them. They want us to cherish the traditions they have bequeathed to us. They want us to be good, to do good and receive the blessings of goodness.
Now as we enter the New Year with its promise of life renewed, I hear each and every one of them encouraging us to move forward in our life journey with the same words Moses used when he encouraged our ancestors to press forward into the Land of Promise. They join him in blessing us with the words chazak ve-ematz, “be strong and be brave.”