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The Book of Life After 75

Growing old is a blessing, not a curse.

Despite Ezekiel Emanuel’s recommendations in his lead article “Why I Hope to Die at 75” in the current Atlantic magazine, I will join Jews around the world this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in praying to continue to be inscribed in the heavenly book of life.

Emanuel does seem to have great credentials. He is Director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. With a resume like that you might be tempted to take his views seriously. After all he offers some interesting reasons why he believes there’s no point in living beyond the age 75 when, as he puts it, “he will have lived a complete life – and it’s all downhill from there.”

Here’s how he explains why he will make no effort for longevity after his self-selected age for decrepitude:

But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

In short, getting old should be avoided even if it means longing for its only alternative. Write me down in the book of death, is Emanuel’s plea to God, when I’m no longer the young man I used to be with all of its blessings. It is a prayer that runs counter to the most basic teachings of Judaism as well as the wisdom of the Torah and its rabbinic commentators.

Yes, getting old today is almost considered a sin. We are a youth-worshiping Botox generation who want above all to conceal the indicators of age and to camouflage the signs that betray the passage of years, an unrealistic denial of reality which sociologists Taves and Hansen have labeled “the Peter Pan syndrome.” And yes, we’ve achieved the ability to extend our years but not to ensure freedom from accompanying pain and infirmities. We often live beyond the gift of our full mental faculties and the health of our physical capabilities.

But if we ask whether in spite of all it’s still worth it, it might come as a shock to realize that the very things we consider our problems were considered by our rabbinic sages to be the key to significant blessings. In fact, in an incredible passage in the Midrash, three of the difficulties Ezekiel Emanuel posited as reasons for his desire not to live beyond 75 were divine responses to requests by our patriarchs, Abraham Isaac and Jacob!

Getting Old

The very first time the Bible makes reference to old age is with regard to Abraham. “And Abraham was old and well stricken in age; and God had blessed Abraham in all things.” (Genesis 24:1). Why had this never been mentioned previously in connection with anyone else? The Rabbinic answer is because this was the first time that noticeable aging had ever happened!

How remarkable to learn that Abraham pleaded with God to grant him as blessing that very sign we today consider a curse. "Master of the universe,” Abraham prayed, “if there is no such thing as old age, there would be no difference between an immature child and the mature man who has acquired a certain level of intelligence, experience and wisdom. That is not good. If you will be so kind, crown us with old age. Put a little white in the hair, make a person look a little bit older, more distinguished. Then others will know to whom to give greater respect."

The Midrash concludes that upon hearing this request, God said to Abraham: "A good thing have you asked for. And from you it shall begin." And that’s why “Abraham was old and well stricken in age; and God had blessed Abraham in all things.” What Abraham brought to the world was divine agreement with his desire that age deserves to be honored for those ways in which it is superior to youth.

Building Character

Isaac too had a wish. The Midrash infers it from the verse that tells us, "When Isaac grew old, his eyes became weak from seeing, and he became blind" (Genesis 27:1). Nowhere before in the Bible do we find any mention of physical affliction. It is a biblical first and seems to come out of nowhere. How can we account for his blindness? This too, remarkably enough, was the divine response to a prayer.

The Midrash fills in the blanks. "Master of the universe," Isaac said to God, "I am afraid to face you, never having suffered hardship on this earth. I know that the challenge of confronting difficulties as well as finding the faith to overcome them will make me a better person. I pray, therefore, let me endure some suffering now and make me more worthy." To this request, God again replied, "A good thing you have asked for. And from you, it shall begin."

For almost all of mankind, pain seems something to be avoided at all cost and disabilities to be detested. And yet there are those who came to understand that character, as Booker T. Washington put it, is the sum of all we struggle against. Helen Keller had the profound wisdom late in life to say, "I thank God for my handicaps, for, through them, I found myself, my work, and my God." There is great truth in the aphorism that "The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials." And Isaac was the first one to intuitively grasp this fact and have the courage to plead for it to play a role in his life.

Surely there is much about human suffering that we cannot understand or attempt to justify. But it is an important reminder for us to learn that there are ways in which suffering may at times achieve a truly noble purpose and we would be foolish to forsake life simply in order to avoid it.

Warning: Death

Which brings us to Jacob, the third of the patriarchs. He too made a wish that on the surface seems like curse rather than blessing. He also is described with a biblical first. Before him there is no record of anyone going to his death preceded by a final illness. The almost universal legend has it that in the very earliest days the way people died was with a sneeze. Man was created by way of God blowing His spirit into Adam’s nostrils. The moment of death therefore saw the final breath of life expelled from the same place it had originally entered.

Jacob wasn't afraid of dying but what he deeply feared was this kind of sudden death. He also turned to God with an appeal. "Master of the universe,” he prayed, “people are dying without warning. Their breath is taken from them, and they are gone in an instant. They sneeze and they are dead. They do not have a chance to settle their affairs, to make peace with those they have wronged, to ask forgiveness of God and fellow man. Please, God, give me the gift of a final illness before I am cut down by the Angel of death."

For yet a third time, God replied, "A good thing you have asked for. And from you, it shall begin." So in Genesis 48:1, we first find the word for serious illness, choleh, in Hebrew. A messenger comes to Joseph to tell him, "Behold, your father is ill." And shortly thereafter Jacob dies, but not before he has the opportunity to bid a final farewell to his family.

Imagine. Jacob could have departed from this world in the same way as all of his contemporaries. Not a moment of worry, no stress, no anxiety. Not even the sad scene of family sitting close to the deathbed, tearfully coming to terms with an obviously imminent tragedy. Yet Jacob chose the way of awareness. Even though throughout his entire life he knew what we all know and recognized his mortality he felt there was a great deal to be gained from the time that undeniably precedes a final parting.

I have witnessed many people making great use of their last moments. We speak of preparing to meet our maker. It is an opportunity that by definition can only come once in a lifetime. According to the Talmud, sincere repentance at the very end can undo years of transgression. I've seen how the dying have become transformed as they reflect upon their past with the much clearer vision of approaching eternity.

Knowing that one is imminently going to die also permits reconciliations that otherwise would never have been possible. I have seen enemies embracing at a deathbed, children estranged from parents apologizing, husbands and wives in the midst of divorce proceedings begging each other for forgiveness. What people say before death carries incredible weight.

Jacob knew why he wanted the gift of warning even though it came with suffering. His gain far exceeded his pain. That must be of comfort to all those who are granted time to prepare for their parting. Like Jacob, they must be grateful for the special opportunity granted to them to say their final goodbyes.

And that is why I urge Ezekiel Emanuel to reconsider. Those things he fears about aging are all part of a divine plan with purpose and meaning. Every moment of the gift of life has significance and great potential for fulfilling God’s will for the universe.

I find it serendipitous that Emanuel chose the year 75 for ideal death when it was the very age at which Abraham first began his momentous mission to transmit his monotheistic belief to the rest of the world. Achievements come when God wills them, oft times quite late in life. And as an octogenarian I will pray for additional time to continue to play whatever role God has in mind for me as the reason for my presence here on earth - at least until 120.

This article can be read on-line at: http://www.aish.com/ci/s/The-Book-of-Life-After-75.html

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