In a casual conversation the other day with my dear friend Marvin Israelow, our board chair at IJS and someone nearly 30 years my senior, I shared with him that one of the many blessings of my job is being in the presence of so many people who are “doing aging well.” He asked what I considered aging well. I considered his question and responded that I thought it included a few things: Getting clear on what’s really important to you, developing the ability to share that openly with loved ones, and living your life that way (and it doesn’t hurt if you’re blessed with the health and means to do so).
Marvin is an exemplar of this, as are many of the people who serve on our board and in our broader community. That’s not an accident, of course–one of our founders, Rabbi Rachel Cowan z”l co-wrote, with Dr. Linda Thal, the book Wise Aging, and for several years IJS even ran a program to train facilitators to lead groups working through the book together (and some of those groups continue to meet to this day). People at what developmental theorists call the generative stage of life more frequently tend to have the time, capacity, and interest to engage in mindfulness and spiritual practices. If you’ve ever been to our daily online meditation sit, you’ll see the proof.
One of the reasons I felt prompted to share my observation with Marvin is that my own life, like most other people’s, I expect, has been a mixed bag of examples of aging. My grandfather did aging really well–lots of hobbies and interests, travel, writing moving letters and reflections on Torah at our bnei mitzvah and weddings. My mother, his daughter, did too–singing in choirs, volunteering at the symphony, writing her own reflections, sharing directly her thoughts and feelings. My dad, however, didn’t do as well. I always felt he struggled to adjust to life after children, as we had been the center of his life for so many years. While he cared deeply about family, he often struggled to express it with ease.
That difficulty was manifest at the end of his life, as, despite my noodging for many years, my Dad didn’t get around to buying burial plots. I don’t fault him–that’s a hard thing to do, and I can totally understand how it happened. Yet it led to the scene in his final days–again, a scene which I expect many others have experienced–of me standing in the hallway outside his palliative care room on the phone with the synagogue about acquiring a spot in the cemetery.
When I shared this with Marvin, he told me that one of the great gifts his own mother had given him was, several years before her death, talking with him about her wishes for her funeral and ensuring that all the arrangements were in place. As part of her own aging well, Marvin’s mom wanted to make sure that, when the time came, her family would not be preoccupied with figuring all of these things out on the spot and could be more present with their loss and with each other. Pretty amazing.
Amidst all the hubbub of leaving Egypt, the Torah offers us the image of Moses running around looking for Joseph’s bones in order to fulfill the promise Joseph made the Israelites swear–that they would bury him in the land of Israel (Ex. 13:19). There are many beautiful midrashim on this moment, some of which draw a comparison between the box (aron) that carried Joseph and the box (aron kodesh) that carried the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Within that second aron were not only the intact tablets but the broken pieces of the first tablets that Moses smashed.
The Torah thus offers us a window into the deeply intergenerational nature of the Exodus: the commitments we make to one another that extend beyond our lifetimes; the wisdom of our ancestors we carry with us, metaphorically and, in this case, literally; the ways in which elders help to liberate their descendants and descendants help to liberate our ancestors. The Seder, of course, is a quintessentially intergenerational conversation.
But I think the larger point is that that conversation between generations is not only meant to happen once a year over the matzah, but in an ongoing process that happens in gestures large and small, day after day, moment after moment. Initiating those conversations, living with that quality of awareness and intention, is, at root, what I think it means to age well. May our practices help us do it.