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Finding Wholeness in the Aging Process:. A Jewish Perspective. Abraham Joshua Heschel.

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abraham joshua heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel

What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration attention, not be be discarded and forgotten. What they deserve is preference, yet we do not even grant them equality. One father finds it possible to sustain a dozen children, yet a dozen children find it impossible to sustain one father. – Insecurity of Freedom p. 70


Other than ‘hello, goodbye and peace’ the word ‘shalom’ comes from the Hebrew root Shin, Lamed, Mem and indicates the idea of completeness. In Hebrew L’Shaleim means to ‘complete a transaction’ i.e. to buy something. Sh-leimut is the Hebrew word for wholeness.

finding sh l ei m ut
Finding Sh-leimut

It is Jewish tradition to align ourselves with mitzvot (commandments) and to find ourselves. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face:

What am I here for?

Sh-leimut is found in how each of us answer this … regardless of our age.

the search for meaning is tied to torah
The Search for Meaning is Tied to Torah

Torah, i.e. Jewish sacred texts hold God’s or tradition’s understandings regarding how a Jew defines that question, ‘What am I here for?’

codes of jewish practice mishnah avot 5 25
Codes of Jewish practice - MishnahAvot 5:25

He [YehudabenTaima] used to say: At five [one should begin the study of] Scriptures;

at ten, Mishna;

at thirteen [one becomes obligated in] the commandments;

at fifteen [the study of] Talmud;

at eighteen the wedding canopy;

at twenty to pursue;

codes of jewish practice mishnah avot 5 251
Codes of Jewish practice - MishnahAvot 5:25

at thirty strength;

at forty understanding;

at fifty counsel;

at sixty old age;

at seventy fullness of years;

at eighty spiritual strength;

at ninety bending over;

at one hundred it is as if he has died and passed on from the world.

according to mishnah avot
According to MishnahAvot…

What does this text teach us?

Does it challenge us?

Why do you think the rabbis wrote this text?

jewish view of aging in a society
Jewish View of Aging in a Society

A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture. – Insecurity, p.72

talmud avodah zarah 23
Talmud – AvodahZarah 23

R. Eliezer [himself] was asked: To what extent is honoring one's father and mother to be practiced? He answered: Go forth and see how a certain idolater of Ashkelon, Dama the son of Nathina by name, acted towards his father.

dama the son of nathina
Dama the son of Nathina

He was once approached about selling precious stones for the ephod at a profit of six hundred thousand denarii [250 denarii was an average wage]; but the keys were lying under his father's head-pillow, so he would not disturb him! In a subsequent year a 'red heifer'* was born in his herd, and some of the Sages of Israel called on Dama.

dama the son of nathina1
Dama the son of Nathina

Said Dama to them: From what I know of you [I am aware] that if I were to demand of you all the money in the world, you would give it to me, but all I ask of you now is that money that I had lost because of my father! — In that case it was purchased through [the agency of] Israelite merchants.

nu so
Nu…..? (so…..?)

Jews see wholeness in aging as more than just a Jewish value, it is one of the vital components of a society. The three groups God cares about most are the stranger, widow and orphan. The compelling reason for the treatment of others lies in not acting like the Egyptians during the time of Pharaoh.

deut 10 17 19
Deut. 10:17-19

For Adonai your God is the God of gods, great, might and awesome who regards not persons (of note) nor takes reward. God executes justice for the orphan and widow and loves the stranger in giving them food and clothes. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

take away
Take away…

When we make strangers of others, we are in violation of the wholeness God would have us live. When we embrace the wholeness God would have us live. To answer the question, “What am I here for?” is to find our wholeness at stages in life. If Dama son of Nathina can know this, all the more so those who claim to live God’s word in this world.

one final quote
One Final quote

Old men need a vision, not a recreation

Old men need a dream, not only a memory.

It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being:


A Soul

And a Moment.

And the three are always here.

Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.

Insecurity p.84