By Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
When my grandparents retired to Florida full time, they did not join a synagogue. Active and committed Jews for their entire lives, they just didn’t expect to live all that long. Somehow they assumed that they would enjoy a few quiet years, and then quietly pass on.
As the decades accumulated, they realized that they had made a mistake.
Our spirit continues to grow and our souls thrive on nurturance and community at every age and stage of life.
I realize that now is the time to start thinking and planning for what kind of elder I want to be. The encounter with death and the knowledge of our own mortality is not meant to be morbid — it is meant to be life enhancing, spurring us on to appreciate the precious, precious nature of the life we have been granted. Understanding that we cannot add years to our lives challenges us to add life to our years.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin writes that, “I’m not saying I relish each new sign of physical deterioration, but depression over one’s ever-expanding waistline cannot compare with the existential angst brought on by contemplating one’s incredibly shrinking future.” The great wisdom is to reach that place of understanding while one still has the physical and mental capability to enjoy doing the things one chooses. She concludes, “If it’s worth seeing or hearing or doing, I want to see and hear and do it now … And every morning when I open my eyes, I tell myself that it is special.”
“Teach us to number our days,” we read in the Psalms, “that we may gain a wise heart.” We cannot impact the number of our days, but we can impact their breadth and depth. With this knowledge, we pause to look at our lives as they will appear in the rear-view mirror. What will our legacy be? How will we be remembered? How do we wish to be remembered? And what are we doing about it?
Our bodies reveal the undeniable reality of our own aging — our senses grow weak; our memory declines; small, persistent aches and pains emerge. And that’s if we’re fortunate enough to age. We face the agonizing loss of watching our generation die away. We fear loneliness and the diminution of our independence. We wonder when the end will come, and pray that we not suffer. As we forfeit the status we once gained from our work, we struggle to retain a sense of meaning in our lives, finding new ways to define the essence of who we are.
There are great spiritual opportunities as we age, time to gather in the harvest of patience and wisdom, gratitude and equanimity, forgiveness and joy. Time to deepen our friendships and deeply appreciate the blessing of each day. Time to renew our commitment to maximize time with family and loved ones.
Loneliness is a plague in our culture, and exponentially more so as we age. As human beings, we are hard-wired to crave love and the comfort of others. We need to resist the urge to withdraw into an ever-shrinking world, defined by our ever-increasing limits.
The Mishkan HaNefesh machzor offers this guidance: “Let us treasure the time we have, and resolve to use it well, counting each moment precious — a chance to apprehend some truth, to experience some beauty, to conquer some evil, to ease some suffering, to love and be loved, to achieve something of lasting worth. There is promise within each of us that only we can fulfill. Let us live our lives so that someday it will be true to say of us: the world is a little better, because, for just one moment, they lived in it.”
Continuing to grow, to learn, to care, to stay connected, to give back. Exemplifying compassion for ourselves and others. Being role models for kindness and forgiveness. And knowing when to let go. May this be our legacy in this next chapter of life.
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is the associate rabbi of Temple Chai in Phoenix, where she directs the Shalom Center.