Upon Moses’ death the Bible observes, “His eye was not dimmed neither was his strength abated.”
No one will write those words about me. Indeed, the Bible describes all the rest of its heroes declining naturally and opposite to Moses, eyes dimming (think Jacob’s deceit of his father, Isaac) and strength diminished (King David in I Kings 1).
When I prepare for bed these days I remove my shoes with the lift in the left heel and place them next to the bed; I place my eyeglasses on the night table so I can find them when I awaken in the middle of the night; I lightly brush my hearing aids and gently place them in their box and in their drawer; and I insert my plastic night guard on my lower teeth to keep me from ruining my gums.
In the morning when joggers pass me on my walk with the dogs, I think, without a scintilla of jealousy of course, how if they asked me I would say, “Yeah, I used to do that, and I thought about walkers the way you think about me.” To the cyclists I want to say, “I was once one of your brethren.” But that was before my back collapsed and I was hit by the car. In other words, another lifetime.
Am I declining? Well, I suppose you could claim that if you think of aging as a slippery slope toward death. I am less physically capable than I was once upon a time. But the truth is that my somatic capabilities have constantly changed over the course of my life. I was never headed to the Olympics, or a professional team, or to any sort of athletic fame. A physician’s nurse once asked me about my activities, and when I told her I jogged 18 miles weekly and often cycled 15 or 20 miles she said to my great surprise, “Oh, then you’re an athlete.” The assertion, not posed as a question, shocked and pleased me. I was never above physical vanity. But that was the sole instance of being called an athlete.
We disdain corporeal decline. Why? Partially because in American society we equate physical and mental weakness, but the equivalence is false. If anything, I am sharper than ever. Yes, of course, I have trouble with names sometimes. But I comprehend the events around me with so much greater clarity. I see through motivations now without struggling as I once did. Now that I have more time, I can investigate current events more thoroughly, and often discover there’s more than one perspective on the facts. I now read both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I have discovered a subtlety to life, gradations of gray in every event, that I too often missed previously in my hurry to arrive at conclusions and move on.
But the best part is: I revel in the shades of gray. I experience more satisfaction realizing the complexities of living, and seeing something that seems to me to approximate accuracy.
I often find younger people stating simplicities as ultimate truths. I am experiencing a new joy in helping others to more accurately perceive the world’s complexity. The struggle now is to find methods to do that. Communication has changed so radically.
Am I aware that this is my new challenge, to affect the world through the developing communications media? Sure. It’s quite a challenge. I seem to experience a new kind of wisdom, and I want to share that. But how?
So let’s return to the original subject. I am not primarily declining. I am growing. Am I experiencing physical decline? You betcha. It’s gradual in my case, but inexorable. When my back collapsed six years ago I couldn’t move at all. Now I am upright and pain free. But the trend line is clear, if not entirely consistent.
Yet, that’s part of the learning I want to share. Physical deterioration now is as sure as physical growth was in my early twenties. But my growth in understanding gives me the satisfaction I once experienced from muscle growth. Both have posed challenges, in the present case, “How do I share my growth and increase its meaning in my life?”
I relish the challenge and the vitality that accompanies it. Turns out, Moses was not alone after all.
Rabbi Mark H. Levin, DHL
Founding Rabbi, Congregation Beth Torah
Overland Park, KS