Let me begin with two stories:
The first story comes from my years as a chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. I came across an elderly man walking in the hallway. I engaged him in conversation, and he told me his wife was dying of cancer. After asking him how he was doing with this, he responded, “I can accept her death. We lived a good life.” He further told me that they had met in Auschwitz. They never expected to live though that horrible experience and the aftermath as well, but they did. He then said to me, “Every moment since the gates of hell was an added blessing. A gift from God for which we are grateful; for which I am grateful.”
The second story comes from the Tonight Show when it was hosted by Jay Leno. He was interviewing a 104-year-old man who had just won a gold medal in the Senior Olympics. The man was spry looking and definitely looked healthy. Jay asked him if he had been exercising his whole life and the man responded, “No. I started going to the gym at the age of 100.” Jay then asked him, “What happened at 100 that made you decide to do this?” And the athlete said, “When I reached 100, I said to myself, now it is time to start living.”
From these two stories there are many lessons to be learned.
The first story teaches us that every moment of life is precious. If we become absorbed in the negative, we are only wasting the minutes we have left. After all that couple could have fixated on their Holocaust experience or the husband on the fact that his wife was now dying of cancer. Instead, he focused on the gift of months and years that could not have been there at all; being grateful for every one of them.
The blessings, Berachot that our tradition has us offer, a minimum of 100 a day, are said and should be said with the realization that we should have nothing at all but since we do have something, whatever that is, we need to be grateful to the Creator of all.
The second story teaches us that we are never too old to be “young.” In the book Sparks from Berditchov, Yaakov Klein shares the teachings of the Hasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov. On page 258, he shares that Rebbe Nachman of Breslov “couldn’t make peace with those who allowed themselves to ‘grow old.’” He further quotes, “It is not good to grow old, for one must renew himself each day and constantly begin again.”
This time of COVID-19 has been and still is a very trying time for so many of us, particularly for those of us in the “graying” population. I have neighbors in our south Florida community, people in their 80s and 90s, who never leave their apartment, ordering food and yes toilet paper on the phone or by internet. These people are just vegetating because they are stagnating. They sit alone complaining how terrible this time has been but do nothing to make it a little easier and maybe even better.
On the other hand, I have neighbors, of the same age group as the others, who get together with my wife and me every day in the grassy area behind our homes. We have been doing this since Day One. We sit on beach chairs socially distancing and talk, talk about everything and nothing but at least we get out and can go home and say, “Today, wasn’t so bad. It could have been worse.”
Do not allow this time to make you old, or at least older than you are! Find ways to keep your mind, body and soul active. Also, be ever grateful for every moment of life you have because each of these moments is truly a miraculous gift not to be wasted.
One final story. There is a Jewish pessimist and a Jewish optimist. The Jewish optimist says, “Things can’t get any worse” and the pessimist says optimistically, “Yes, they can.” Well, they can but then maybe they cannot. Sometimes it is up to each of us which way life will go. After all, for the 104-year-old athlete, it was never too late to start going to the gym.
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.