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Rabbi's Week in Review - 2/21/2023

02/21/2023 10:35:59 AM


I am thinking, this week, about growing old, and I am thinking about death. I hasten to add that I am not putting the two together — I am not thinking about growing old as a step closer to the inevitability of death. Rather, I am struck by how some people carry themselves with dignity through both experiences.

Among the events that moved me in this direction was a shiva service I led Sunday night. I saw many familiar faces I had not seen for a while. I mentioned at the service how we, as Jews, seem particularly supportive in the process of mourning loss. Sitting shiva creates a space for gathering family and friends, a space by which we honor memory.

We learned this week about former President Jimmy Carter making the decision, at age 98, to accept no more medical treatment and live out his remaining life under hospice care at home, surrounded by family. This is the paragon of what it looks like to die with dignity.

I am convinced that situations where people have some control over the way they die reflect the way they have lived their lives. In the case of President Carter, he lived a life putting other people first. Not the most popular of presidents (and I don’t put much stock in popularity polls, given our track record as voters), Carter has given more in his post-presidency years than any president in history. This is true on a macro level in his work for human rights and voting rights. It is true on a micro level as he served as a teacher in his church, and worked in a most hands-on way building houses through Habitat for Humanity.

With my own mother, I experienced firsthand a loved one who chose to die with dignity. (This is as good a time as any to laud the work of those in hospice care. They are my heroes.) She lived the last years of her life the same way she had always lived — with an abiding concern for others first. She had all the important conversations, taking care of business, as it were, right up until the end and making sure we were all OK.  

The life journey has been consistent. My mother (although dying way too soon), like Jimmy Carter, lived with dignity, aged with dignity and died with dignity.

Which is to say, I see aging with dignity as a variation on the same theme of dying with dignity.  Fay and I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band over the weekend. It was not our first Springsteen concert. They never disappoint, and this concert was no exception. 

This one, however, seemed different to me. Maybe it is the prospect that this could be the last time Springsteen does a big concert tour. No one would blame him, at age 73, if it were his last big tour. He has given so much through his music, the most poignant of lyrics and songs that all seem to soar as anthems, including a new song in memory of the last member of his band (pre E Street band) who died recently.

He ended the concert with his older, most familiar songs. He could have easily mailed it in, having played these songs thousands of times over thousands of concerts. Instead, with the house lights turned up, it became a sing-along dance party. We all were welcomed in to share the experience. If it is his last concert tour, he sent us off with a message of finding the joy in life to stand right alongside life’s challenges.

I think about all this with my impending birthday next week. A few nicks notwithstanding (thank G-d, I have no serious health issues — I tend to describe my body as increasingly annoying), I am blessed with an active and full life, and look forward to the same for years to come. Yet hitting 65 seems to be a time for a little reflection, reflection not only on my path in life that got me here but also on the life I will live going forward.

The Springsteen concert, which Fay and I recognized as the beginning of a birthday celebration, gave me a great lesson in how to live life, adding to a week and a lifetime of life lessons on how to live lives of dignity and meaning.  

Mon, March 20 2023 27 Adar 5783