I was recently speaking at a synagogue in central New Jersey and in the midst of the conversation, we were examining, in a way, the transitions that sometimes take place as we get older. Youthful passion gives way to a life experienced type of wisdom and we, gradually, become concerned about our own legacy, what we shall of us that will be taken, we hope, by family and friends into their future. Heady stuff. Maybe it is because it is mid January and it is cold and February looms close, that these thoughts seem to occupy more of my mind. It really is time to examine priorities.
This came to my mind again as I was looking at two books that I finished in preparation for a class I am teaching that begins very soon. The estate of Oliver Saks published “Gratitude” (Knopf. 2015). It is a brief (45 pages) compilation of a few essays. In one, he muses on a clear night sky, one with what seemes to be a million stars. He wrote this as he knew he was dying and for some reason this sky “made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens beauty, of eternity was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience–and death” (p.25) I think this image strikes home to many of us. Remember when we do have that chance to see a night sky unblemished by city light? Millions of stars, galaxies very far away, and here we are. There is a sense of wonder and we ask, channeling Genesis 3, what is this life for, as we are a speck, and finite to boot.
In a different mode is a wonderful piece from “Creatures of A Day” by Irvin Yalom.(Basic Books. 2015). Yalom, in his 80s, was responding to someone who asked how he handled being 80 and so close to death. Yalom responded in this beautiful way: “So for me the vanishing of youthful, sometimes tyrannical, passions has made me appreciate the starry skies more and all the wonders of being alive, wonders that I had previously overlooked. I’m in my eighties,and I’ll tell you something unbelievable: I’ve never felt better or more at peace with myself. Yes, I know my existence is drawing to a close, but the end has beenthere since the beginning. What is different now is that I treasure the pleasures of sheer awareness, and I’m for tunate enought to share them with my wife, whom I’ve known almost all my life” (p. 48)
Those starry skies make us think. For some it may be the mountains, for others, the ocean, or aspects of nature itself. We observe them, try to figure out our place in them and, every so often, the spiritual aspect of our own finite existence–especially in light of nature–may cause us to ask the basic questions of what we mean to the universe. And I think these moments become morw precious as we age.
Rabbi Richard F. Address