Old age, the Rabbis suggest, began with Abraham. It’s a typically rabbinic observation. The word, ‘Zaken’ appears for the first time only in this week’s parasha, and so ...
Perhaps the more historical observation would be that ageing used to be so much rarer than it is today. We are, notes Noah Yuval Harari, the first humans to face age as the greatest threat to our mortality. In generations past violence, pestilence and famine accounted for so many more of us. Now what?
In Bereishit Rabba Abraham asks God for a sign of ageing so everyone will know who deserves more respect when ‘a father and a son go to a place,’ indeed the word Zaken, means both ‘aged’ and ‘wise.’ Zaken also means ‘beard’ - a sign of age? Certainly. A sign of wisdom? Well as long as it’s a reasonably neat goatee, I think so.
The great American teacher Reb Zalman taught much about ‘saging’ a process where the aged are duly celebrated for their wisdom, not only the real depths of insight that come with age, but also the wisdom of declining intellectual perspicuity. And there is the rub.
In ancient times death, in times of peace and plenty, would usually be preceded by illness, untreatable and therefore brief. Nowadays we survive, physically, longer and longer, perhaps outlasting our mental strength, perhaps outlasting financial sums put aside, perhaps outlasting the reservoir of care and love that we imagine our due. The absolute connection between age and wisdom is severely threatened. Indeed this may be the single greatest challenge of our age.
Two thoughts to share, neither renders the work of caring for the aged easy or alters the stark physical challenges so many face, but hopefully thoughts that can ease a spiritual burden.
Firstly when the Talmud discusses the obligation to honour one’s parents - one of the Ten Commandments - the examples cited are without exception about aged parents; perhaps senile and certainly no longer at the height of their power. A jeweller forgoes a significant sale since his father is asleep using his keybox as a pillow. A man watches his mother fan money off the back of a ship without attempting to stop her. When the Rabbis suggested honouring one’s parents to be the heaviest of the obligations they knew the challenges posed by ageing. Acknowledging the gift of our parents is something that takes place not when our parents are at the height of their powers, but afterwards.
Secondly, there is this notion of the creation of the human in the image of the Divine; every human, at every stage in that person’s life. It is the greatest challenge in our faith and it applies equally to the young, the old, the fit, the infirm, the perspicacious and the demented. To bear witness to the divine nature in a person, no matter how challenging they might be, no matter how much a shadow they might be of their former selves, is, I believe, the key to understanding how we should care for our most aged and sage-ed. It is certainly how we should all wished to be cared for ourselves.