Youth No More
A Torah portion of old age and sound advice
My next-door neighbor, Frances, cast her first ballot in 1920. She was among the approximately one million women in New York State who celebrated the suffrage movement’s monumental victory that year by participating in the electoral process for the first time in American history. She had voted, she told me, for the socialist Eugene Debs; it was the only time in her life she hadn’t given her voice to the Democratic Party’s candidate.
Frances shared that story with me a few days after John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 election, and I could swear by her look that she still felt a little awkward about having wasted her vote. The Democrat James M. Cox, she reminisced, was not as righteous or as thrilling as Debs, but he would’ve been a better choice, as he had a much better chance of beating Warren Harding to the Oval Office. Besides, his running mate was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who even then, as a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, showed great political promise.
Listening to Frances talk, it was easy to forget that the events she recounted so vividly occurred in the distant past. There was not a trace of sentimentality in her voice. She wasn’t an old lady reminiscing about the innocent years of her youth; rather, she was a serious woman still mulling over a political decision made nearly a century ago. She took it more seriously than most of us take anything these days, because she took life itself seriously, with its joys, its struggles, even its long, arid and uneventful stretches.
She couldn’t imagine another way to live. When she fell, several years ago, and badly bruised her frail frame, she laughed the whole thing off. She came back from the hospital a few days later, swaggering. When a neighbor asked her what had happened, she deadpanned, “Oh, it’s just that I got into a fistfight. You should have seen the other guy.” She would spend her mornings in the farmers’ market or the antiques bazaar, her evenings in a beloved Italian restaurant a few blocks away. She never said so herself, but you could sense there was nothing in the world that scared Frances more than the sentimental and forgetful haze that engulfs most of us as we age. Life, she believed, was to be lived engagingly or not at all.
It’s the sort of searing truth, alas, that only becomes evident to us when we, like Frances, have lived through enough decades of heartbreak and hope. We scheme and strive, struggle and rush, fret and dream, and we think that we defy time with our carefully calculated calendars and our flare for multitasking. But time is marching, marching until it surrounds us and we have no choice but to surrender, and realize that we’re old, and hope that, somewhere along the way, we also grew wise.
In this week’s parasha, Moses makes this point as gracefully as ever. If time’s marching, he seems to suggest, the best thing we can do is march with it—in the desert, if need be— until we’re ready to arrive at our destination.
After confirming again that the children of Israel are God’s treasured people, and after a frightening tirade of horrors that he threatens would befall the people were they ever to abandon their divine covenant—fever! illness! a disease that causes unquenchable thirst!—Moses ends his speech on an elegiac note.
“You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land,” the aged leader tells his flock. “The great trials which your very eyes beheld and those great signs and wonders. Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.”
This clause, for all of its haunting elegance, calls into question a seminal bit of our understanding of the Exodus story. The errand in the wilderness, goes the perceived wisdom, was designed largely as an attempt to wait out the generation of dissenters who’d left Egypt—a grumbling bunch, worshippers of the Golden Calf, slaves clinging to their subservient mentality—and march into the Promised Land with a fresh batch, a gaggle of youth unburdened by the traumas of the past.
But in this week’s portion, Moses seems to suggest that the purpose of his 40-year detour was not to favor the young over the old, but, on the contrary, to allow the people to march with time and mature. A human heart, Moses fully understands, only begins to know what it beats for when it has beaten enough times to feel life’s rhythm. It’s not a collection of clean slates he wants inheriting the land, but a nation of men and women who had finally learned how to see and hear and feel.
It’s an interpretation—a fugue for the wisdom of the old playing softly against the stentorian symphonies of youth—that Frances herself would have loved. Like her, Moses is preaching the merits of a life lived deliberately, a constant engagement with things great and small.
It was this sensibility that drove her, even as a centenarian, to keep on marching. A few years ago, another one of Frances’s neighbors, entering the elevator with her at the top floor of our apartment building, asked her, in an attempt to make conversation, if she was going down.
“Well,” Frances lashed at the man, “I’m not going up quite yet.”
Last weekend, on a windy Friday afternoon, Frances’s heart—her knowing heart—failed her. She finally went up. And she left us, her younger friends, behind, to continue and try to feel for ourselves what had taken her 100 years to learn.