Benjamin Franklin wrote the following words to Jean-Baptiste Le Roy in 1789: “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” As with many other things, Franklin was correct in his statement about the surety of death and taxes. I am confident that none of us would disagree. I would add, however, a third experience of life that we would also agree upon, an experience from which there is no avoidance, and that is change. Nothing in life remains the same. Everything does and will change, as any of us who is getting on in years will attest.
Physically we change as the years go by. We simply cannot do the things we once could do and with some of these things, like athletic activities, excel in. Our bodies just do not function with the same ease that they once did. An activity as basic as getting up in the morning can become a major task for some. Certainly, our mental abilities slow down or seem to become nonexistent at times. Our memories are no longer sharp, and we have great difficulty recalling the names of objects or people’s names whom we know and love. Many, if not most of us, confront two of the greatest changes in our lives, the need to give up driving and the need to downsize our homes. For some this means giving up one’s independence and moving into an assisted living facility or skilled nursing home. Finally, there is the most significant change in our lives, the death of loved ones and friends.
Successful and sacred aging will in large part depend upon the way that we deal with these changes. If we fail to go with the flow, then we will only be filled with frustration, anxiety, stress, and a negative outlook on our lives that will bring us down.
Certainly, this past year 5780 has called upon all our strength emotionally, spiritually, physically and intellectually, as each and every one of us has had to deal with the changes in our lives brought on by COVID-19. What was the “norm” is no longer the “norm.” This is a statement reflecting the changes we have experienced. I have friends who have not seen their children and grandchildren since March, except on a computer screen through Zoom. We have had to master or at least try to master Zoom, so we can stay in contact with family, friends, community, attend a class, go to a meeting, or even celebrate Shabbat. If we socialize at all, we have had to do so with masks on, the new “norm” of apparel. When we do meet in person, we no longer hug or kiss, shake hands or even fist bump as we must stay at least 6 feet apart.
Some of us have managed to deal with these many challenging changes in our lives. We simply do what we must do to keep safe and healthy, and the same with others whom we love and care about. Others of us have not dealt with these changes well at all and have fallen into depression which has or can lead to illness. Why do some of us cope so well with change and others of us fall apart and even become immobilized? I believe it has something to do with the individual’s ability to retool and reinvent oneself, adjusting to the changes in life. Some of us are born with this ability as it is just our personality. I do believe, however, that others can learn to do this, as difficult and as daunting as this task might seem to be.
Certainly, this necessity to deal with change in life has been the hallmark of the Jewish people. When the first Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and many of the Jews were taken as captives to Babylonia, those captives then living in a strange land, had to cope with the vast changes in their lives. When the second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, under the leadership of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, Judaism literally had to remake itself without the Holy Temple as the source of the people’s spiritual life. This need to retool and transform one’s life in the face of the upheavals of life, which led to the need to change one’s life, goes on throughout Jewish history probably experienced in the most intense way for those who experienced the Holocaust.
In our Jewish community we experience all that a new year brings with the changing of a date on a calendar and a re-evaluation of one’s life, not just once a year on Jan. 1 but a second time with the Jewish New Year. With the change in date, we begin to realize that we are changing with all the physical and mental changes that I mentioned above. Certainly, the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur gives witness to the changes in our lives, as we reflect on those people in our lives who are no longer with us.
How can we successfully deal with all these changes in our lives, from our personal changes, to the New Year 5781, to COVID-19? As some would say, we could just “Suck it up” and go on because there is nothing else we can do about it. We also can contemplate the beautiful words of the well-known serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Finally, we can either take our faith in God or work to find that faith to help us deal with the changes in our lives, no matter how large or small. We would do this knowing that God will always be with us for strength to do the right thing, wisdom to know the right thing, and faith to believe we can accomplish the right thing for one’s life and the lives of one’s loved ones.
May 5781 be a year in which the changes we will need to make will be small. May God bless all with a year of blessing filled with peace, health and saying safe.
Rabbi Dr. Steven A Moss is Rabbi Emeritus of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, NY, a synagogue he has served since 1972. He recently retired to Boynton Beach, FL, and is serving as rabbi of Temple Sinai of Palm Beach County. He has also authored, God Is With Me; I Have No Fear, and A Poetical Journey Through Sefirat HaOmer.