The Second Instance: WHEN YOU GROW OLD
If there was ever an idea that runs counter to the dominant culture today it’s this one– that old age should draw us away from the whirly-gig of life, and move us to teshuva (to coming closer to G-d). For millions of us are well in middle age by now and drawing closer and closer to old age, yet nothing pleases us more than the thought of acting like kids for years to come.
The wise, though, would take stock of themselves and realize only too well the implications of aging. After all, as Rabbeinu Yonah puts it, old age is the time when “your strength fails you and wanes, when your impulses have crumpled, and you start to recall that the end is near and what your fate is”.
But much to the dismay of many others not yet old Rabbeinu Yonah adds that, “it’s always astonishing and dumbfounding to behold someone middle-aged– who sees the years passing and fading, sees his edifice beginning to deteriorate, his constitution declining, and he himself withering away… who nonetheless refuses to see and to grasp, and to notice that he’s heading closer and closer to his final resting place day after day!”. And what defines the onset of middle-age in his eyes? Age 35, we’re told! Because that’s when the terrible graph of maturation and growth reaches its peak and begins to head slowly downward.
His point doesn’t seem to be that we’re to set out for the proverbial rocking-chair at 35 (or even much afterward). Only that we’re to stop kidding ourselves, and to no longer fall for the great illusion of immortality that is childhood from that point on. We’re to realize our own vulnerability despite whatever strengths we surely still have, and contend with the inevitable.
For that’s the time of life when we’d do well to take stock of our spiritual standing, and to affirm our dream of achieving spiritual excellence in our lifetime.
Rabbeinu Yonah points out that if we’re indeed to become the sort of people we’d like to be by that point in our life, that we’d hopefully have come to know our hearts by then. And to have realized that indeed, “There is not a man on earth so righteous that he (only) does good without sinning” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)– that we’ve all erred and would need to improve ourselves. But the only way to know in fact how much we’d have to improve would be to, “diligently stand at the doors of sages or their disciples”, as he puts it. Which is to say– to seek out a teacher, and study Torah from him.
For to do otherwise would likely only have us continue the slide into spiritual mediocrity too many of us fall into, which would itself define us as people who “never enter into the inner realms of the fear of G-d, never ruminate deeply about it, and (whose) souls never converge into the innermost chambers of their hearts or dwell therein for any length of time”, as it’s put here.
His point is that when you approach old age you’d do well to spend a lot more time “contemplating the fear of G-d, communing with yourself, perfecting your character, and pursuing Torah and mitzvot”.
The modern vision of a good old age is simply continuing on as you always had, though more slowly. The immortal, spiritual vision of it involves using the time granted you to grow in wisdom, in revelation, and in Divine service. And to serve as a teacher and exemplar to the young, who don’t enjoy the perspective of the long history and breadth of experience all older people have.
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