When my father had back surgery, he shopped around to nearly every top orthopedic surgeon in L.A. until he found one willing to cut into his ailing eighty-five-year-old frame and repair three levels of his lumbar vertebrae. We were overjoyed to see him recover from the spine operation, but soon thereafter he needed a knee replacement. Oy vey! For all his health issues, he still maintains his Dodgers and Lakers season tickets, trades on the stock market, and teaches a monthly Jewish history class. But his pleasure in life is sharply curtailed in what seems to be a cruel downward spiral of Job-like proportions.
Why must we endure end-of-life agony? Why must our loved ones witness our demise? According to the Midrash, the symptoms of old age are due to the prayers of our forefather Avraham. He and his son Yitzchak looked so alike they were indistinguishable. Avraham davened for G-d to introduce gray hair and senior moments to differentiate the aged from the sprightly. I’m sure his beautiful wife Sarah was thrilled when she woke up wrinkled. The sages suggest Avraham initiated aging so people might learn the important lesson of respecting elders. Thanks to Avraham, we know who we need to honor, an important lesson in our youth-driven culture.
Remaining present with the inevitability of death keeps us humble. G-d causes us to value our resources by limiting the amount we have. An endless supply of time might cause us to take it for granted, and ironically, cripple our ability to get anything done. The importance of gratitude for this finite asset trumps the value of longevity. Furthermore, since youthful vigor is fleeting, G-d created a scenario where we have to suck the marrow out of every life experience while we’re mobile. Why be couch potatoes when at some point most of us will wind up couch-bound?
We must seize the day while we can still perform mitzvot. Perhaps we witness the demise of our loved ones in order to promote real service and not lip service. After all, honoring parents made the top ten commandment countdown. Is there a better way to demonstrate respect than caring for the parents who lovingly provided for our needs during childhood? The mitzvah of visiting the sick is not for the sick…it’s for those doing the visiting. In other words, it’s for us to empathize with suffering, reclaim our humanity, feel vulnerable and give. We can’t “outsource” the care that we give to ailing loved ones. When bedridden relatives and friends need us, human compassion transitions from the ephemeral to the actual; “the thought counts” is replaced by meaningful action.
Many of us are entirely focused on our careers or studies and find it difficult to carve out time for the acute needs of community or loved ones. When we do get called upon, the subconscious reaction is usually, “what an inconvenience!” But aren’t we here to genuinely love and support one another?
Another crucial question: Do we want to wait until our friends or relatives are in the hospital before we spend time with them and say how we feel? Do we want to risk losing them without the opportunity to open our hearts to them?
The gift of a large extended family means my aging parents have brothers, sisters, and cousins who are my beloved uncles and aunts. My wife Shira and I are looking at this now octogenarian generation and realizing we have entered a period of our lives that will be marked by funerals. These will be gut-wrenching slashes in the fabric of our universe. Now that the elders are increasingly immobile and ornery, we are less likely to schedule Father’s Day softball games or Chanukah parties. But getting together is more important than ever! After one of our power walks, Shira and I were relaxing on a park bench watching the neighborhood children play. We discussed how we will soon be the alter kakers (old-timers) in the family line. Maybe we are already there! We are also aware that we’ll likely be the ones responsible for keeping the extended family together for Jewish occasions. My own cousins and their kids are so busy, many are intermarried, and nearly all have become twice-a-year Jews in spite of their parents’ attempts to keep them connected. We have to go out of our way to schedule family parties and ensure our Shabbat and holiday tables are filled not only with local friends but our easily overlooked relatives.
When the end arrives, the ancient Jewish approach to (aveylut) mourning parallels the findings of modern-day psychiatric grief research. Shiva isn’t just for Orthodox Jews - this is a period to rely on the wisdom of tradition, to be open to the guidance of a halachic expert. We mourn heavy and hard initially and then ease back into life over a set time. The stages include: a period of “oninut” between death and burial when, despite the mourners’ despair, they must make funeral arrangements. Then there is the post-burial period of shiva for seven days of intense grief when the mourner stays in the house, wears a rent garment (that’s torn, not a rental!), refrains from grooming, wears non-leather shoes, sits on a low chair and keeps all the mirrors covered. Most importantly, mourners allow others to care for them. They typically receive visitors and host a minyan for daily services. If they are capable, aveylim (mourners) lead the davening so they can maximize opportunities for the recitation of Kaddish. The repetition of the refrain, “Y’hei Sh’mey Rabah…” (May G-d’s great name be blessed forever) allows them to discern that losing their loved one is part of the master plan.
On the seventh day of shiva, mourners “get up” following the Shacharit service. They change out of their rent clothing and leave the confinement of the home to walk around the block. This ceremonial reentry into the world of the living expresses the mourners’ choice to remain alive, active, and engaged with society. The heaviness of loss lingers for the next three weeks, until the thirtieth day, aptly called shloshim. When one loses a spouse, child, or sibling, shloshim marks the end of the official mourning period. For a parent, however, a full twelve months of solemnity is observed. The rabbis aren’t necessarily saying mourning for parents is more difficult than the loss of a spouse or child, G-d-forbid. Parents are singled out because they are deserving of the ultimate honor as a result of giving birth, raising, educating, and transmitting values to their offspring. And paying for it! Those in avelut for a parent say Kaddish for eleven months and refrain from attending celebrations for a full year, until the first yahrzeit (death anniversary) of the parent.
We are born wholly dependent on others and most of us leave the same way. Pain opens doors to prayer, to relationship, to compassion. Shira and I grapple with seeing our once superhero parents become frail. Soon it will be our turn. I hope our kids witness us treating our own folks with love and patience and will respond in kind when we are in need. I hope we merit becoming seniors who are worthy of kavod (respect), emotionally healthy, and not too crotchety. At this time, when our kids are becoming independent, our parents are at the stage where they are becoming needy. G-d continues to shower us with the gift of being needed! Soon we’ll have grandchildren hungry for attention, G-d willing.
Witnessing my dad’s decline is fueling my mid-life crisis. This crisis is exacerbated by the huge hole in my being since my oldest kids left the nest. In spite of his maladies, my father says he wants to come with me on my concert tours. I wish he could join me on my adventures. I’m so lucky to have had a loving, supportive, concerned dad for my half-century on this earth. I’m frustrated my prayers for his well-being seem fruitless. I love him so much. I don’t ever want to let him go.
Teenagers individuate, becoming rebellious, taciturn, or worse. This allows parents to stop clinging and throw them out of the house so they can get on to their futures in college. Individuation is a force of nature that is enervating but is also predictable and normal. Similarly, G-d give us a gradually degrading body so at the end of the story we are ready to leave it behind.
This world is not the end of the journey. It is but a corridor on the way to a brilliant future of our own making, thanks to the acts of service and kindness we accomplish while in this temporal form. The “dying of the light” is all part of G-d’s plan. The light of this world pales in comparison to the supernal light beyond. According to the Talmud, for the righteous, the soul leaving the body is like a kiss. May we go “gentle into that good night.” G-d is good. Life is good. I say rage not…let us engage the dying of the light.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. His book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:00 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.