As a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow, I have been blessed twice with the chance to work with our elderly at the Cedar Village retirement community. Initially, this was an intimidating and, if I dare say, depressing experience. I could not stop reflecting on all the negative aspects of old age, and I was focusing my thoughts almost exclusively on the obvious and progressive deterioration of the residents’ physical health and abilities. My contact with them constantly reminded me of my own fear of becoming old, weak, and perhaps lonely as many of them were. I admit that after a few initial visits, I did not want to visit anymore.
When the residents gently complained about not being visited enough by others, I would subconsciously justify the absence of visitors in terms of my own feelings. Indeed, their most often repeated complaint is that they feel neglected and forgotten, even by their own children and loved ones, despite the fact that they perceive themselves as still having a lot to contribute and share with us if we just paid the proper attention. As a provider of pastoral care, I felt guilty for failing to relate to them in the way that they desired and deserved.
But my attitude was destined to change after I met with a resident who confided in me not only his fears but also his life journey from his youth to the retirement community. While we were talking, I realized how well he related to my own contemporary concerns and aspirations. His generous advice helped me to see things clearly and ultimately to make the right decisions. In that very moment, I saw that our roles had been reversed and that I had become the recipient of mentorship and guidance.
That meeting helped me realize that our elderly are people who simply crave to be seen and treated not as items past their expiration date but as repositories of valuable knowledge and experience that would be beneficial to those who reach out for it. They want to feel valued and relevant, and many of us let them down for a variety of reasons.
The teachings of our sacred tradition are replete with directions for appropriate behavior toward the aged. In fact, Judaism teaches us that we should credit our preceding generations for the wisdom upon which our way of life is based. The Torah instructs us to respect the elderly by commanding us to rise before the aged and show deference to the old (מפני שיבה תקום והדרת פני זקן, Leviticus 19:32). Our rabbis recognized that as we grow older, our spiritual capabilities become stronger as our physical health and stamina decline. As our earthly mission nears its completion, our religion ascribes us even more honor in recognition of all our accomplishments. The Rambam made clear that this honor is not connected to one’s level of wisdom when he wrote: “We should stand before an old man of exceedingly advanced age, even if he is not a sage. Even a sage who is young is obligated to stand before a sage of exceedingly advanced age…. Even an old gentile should be addressed with words of respect, and a hand should be extended to support him” (Laws of Torah Study 6:9). Furthermore, in Bereshit Rabbah (Parshat Toledot) it is written: “We learn that everyone who welcomes in an elderly person, it is as if she/he has welcomed the Shechinah (Divine Presence).”
One of the most beautiful and inspiring teachings of Judaism regarding old age refers specifically to the elderly who no longer possess their full mental faculties. According to our tradition, the first set of tablets that Moses shattered upon descending from Mount Sinai were kept alongside the new tablets inside the Ark of the Covenant (b. Bava Bathra 14b). As our sages explain, this teaches that our elderly deserve exactly the same respect whether they are in full possession of their faculties or intellectually fragmented: “Be mindful of the elderly person who has forgotten his/her teaching for reasons that are not his/her fault, as it is said that the broken tablets rested with the tablets in the ark” (b. Berachot 8b).
For the children of Israel in the wilderness to move forward, wholeness and brokenness had to coexist within the holy Ark. Similarly for us, if we want to keep moving forward as a community with a sound foundation toward a certain future, we have to show our elders the deference they deserve and try to attain as much as we can from their wisdom.
Our hectic and demanding ways of life very often make us neglect our elderly. But Judaism instructs us to do otherwise and teaches us that we will all benefit from doing so. Cedar Village aspires to achieve this by granting Hebrew Union College rabbinical students the opportunity to gain valuable wisdom, as our elderly are willing to impart their life experiences to the next generations, while ensuring that its residents feel valued and enjoy company along with pastoral care provided by the future rabbis.
Through my own experience as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Cedar Village, I discovered some of the reasons that deepened my love and appreciation for our aged and for Cedar Village, and I wanted to share them in this article. Instead of focusing on their limitations, I now choose to see them for their potential to enrich our lives through their wisdom.
Yonatan Greenberg is currently the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Cedar Village Retirement Community.