Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Opportunity of Old Age

This week's Torah portion (Va-Yeilekh) begins with Moshe offering his final pieces of advice to various parties, just before his death. As an introduction to the portion (although technically at the end of last week's), the Malbim (R. Meir Leibush Weiser) discusses how the weakness and illness of old age can often be an opportunity. While we generally take it to be a sad deterioration of the body, an entropic inevitability, the Malbim sees it in a different light.

Aging forces people to slowly withdraw from their careers, allowing them more time for contemplation of ultimate issues. It also places them face-to-face with their mortality. It gives them the opportunity to see the true, spiritual priorities in life and rearrange their own affairs in that light. Sickness brings loved ones together, which allows the sick person to make amends with those he may have wronged. To the Malbim, old age is God's way of giving people a final chance to improve their spiritual well-being before going to the next world. It is ironic, because we are used to thinking of those who die suddenly as being fortunate. With the Malbim's approach, on some level this is not true.

Rabbenu Yonah had already made a somewhat similar point in his Sha'arei Teshuvah (2:17). The greater spiritual awareness that accompanies old age is an additional opportunity for repentance, for attempting to undo the spiritual wrongs of a lifetime. Consequently, in logic similar to that in this post (link), Rabbenu Yonah says that those who fail to heed this message are liable not only for failing to repent but also for missing the important opportunity that is presented to them.

I personally find this to be an important perspective that helps to add meaning to -- even if not fully explaining -- the difficulties I see many elderly and infirm people suffering.

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