Aging and Judaism

[This is a repeat, something written way back when I was younger and spent Friday nights volunteering in a nursing home…]

 As Long As I Walk in the Paths of Hashem

 Although I’d been volunteering at the nursing home for many months, I still hadn’t become accustomed to the decaying bodies and lives housed therein.  Each time I walked through the glass doors I was beset by many emotions:  fear that one day I’d be the patient, a rush of pity, a desire to lend some help, and most overwhelming was the sadness.  Was this the culmination of years of living?  The amount of pain and past within each person in the nursing home seemed to pull them down inwards.  All that was left of their once-vibrant lives were mere memories.

 Some patients were quite pitiable, still caught up in pursuing their life-long desires, not realizing life, and opportunity, had passed them by.  An old man in a wheelchair was still looking for a sweetheart; a lady on a respirator spoke of a business she planned on having; and yet another spoke of far-away lands she’d visit someday.  Some patients lived in the past only.  They spoke to long-gone relatives and relived events a million times over.  Still others maintained lucidity and realized their condition.  This last group was the most heartbreaking to encounter, for there was nothing in them but bitterness at the cold reality of their situation.  Although it was hard to discern from their present condition, all the patients had once loved and been loved, had given and had taken, and had been as young, hopeful and alive as me – sometime in the past, which to them was not so long ago.

It was early Friday night, and I was assigned to feeding a mute woman.  Friday night -Shabbos Kodesh.  From feeding at the nursing home, I would return to my warm home, where the Shabbos candles cast their peaceful aura.  As I sat at Eva’s side, I looked around the dining room at her co-patients, helpless victims of the hard facts of aging.

Although plenty of the patients lit the customary Shabbos candles, no warmth emanated from them.  The cold blue counter under the candles, the harshness of the orange tables and the banality of the bland trays of food overwhelmed the small brigade of little flames.  The Shabbos candles flickered and shone, trying to shed their magical glow over the nursing home dining room.  However, their shine was overpowered by the television in the corner that flashed its messages of chaos.  The candles’ beauty was defeated by the inane squabbling and screaming of the patients.

I looked around at the spitting, the arguing, the daydreams shouted aloud, and I felt the wave of sadness wash over me again.  “This is it?” I questioned.  “This is where we’re all heading?”

Just then another patient limped into the dining room.  He was wearing a suit (albeit a decrepit one, but a suit, nonetheless) with a tie.  A yellowish-white beard framed a gaunt face and two intelligent eyes shone from beneath a frayed hat brim.

As he walked in through the door, he began singing, in a wavering voice, “Shalom Alaichem Malachei Hashareis…”  Finally a voice that countered the TV’s…finally a pure presence.

The man walked over to his orange table.  Carefully, lovingly, he rearranged his meal on a white napkin.  Tonight was not just another night in the nursing home.  It was Shabbos.  This meal seemed alike in content and appearance to all the other dinners he’d had here; but tonight it was his Shabbos Seudah.

The man made Kiddush, and I answered, “Amein.”  His eyes lit up when he heard somebody responsing to his Bracha.  I quickly brought an extra roll for Lechem Mishna, and the old man’s face became a study of gratification as he smiled at the prospect of Lechem Mishnah.  And as I watched him, my earlier sadness was replaced with thankfulness and determination.  For I now knew that as long as I held onto the Kedusha [sanctity] that is our heritage, as long as I filled my life with the rich meaning of Judaism, my old age would be filled with it, too.  I could mold myself into the Yerushalmi Bubby with her Tehillim, I could train myself to be the Yiddishe Mamme with an unshakable faith…I can fashion myself into a vessel of purity.

I WILL become old.  I might become disabled.  But, as long as I walk in the paths of Hashem, I will always be as alive, as upright, as serene and virtuous, as the old man that Friday night. 


and here is the verse from Psalms that begs G-d “not to cast us off” when we are old and not to abandon us when our “strength is gone”.


About jewishspectacles

Jewish Spectacles-the kind you look through, not the kind you create!
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