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“Three Score and Ten Our Years May Number . . .”

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August 29, 2013

by Deborah Shelkan Remis

IMG_1434Four times a year, during Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah and Shavuot, Jews in synagogue recite Yizkor, the traditional memorial service to honor the lives of our loved ones. One of the passages we read is:

“Three score and ten our years may number/ four score years if granted the vigor.”

I bristle each time my lips utter this verse. Applying the Gettysburg address to calculate what a score is, I quickly deduce, as a bona fide member of the boomer generation, that this statement is either grossly inaccurate or I am fast approaching imminent demise. I personally take umbrage to this antiquated estimation of life expectancy. Living to seventy or eighty years old, if “granted the vigor,” may have been de rigueur when this prayer was written, but today, it is an erroneous parody of the vitality of the older adult, the fastest growing segment of our population.

Gaze around the sanctuary of my synagogue. Allow me to introduce you to some congregants who clearly defy the antediluvian recitation of the aforementioned verse. There is the spritely 98-year-old, with a full, white, thick mane of hair and a hearty handshake, who still drives and picks up another congregant, an 89-year-old man, each Monday and Thursday for early morning minyan services. Our esteemed and knowledgeable Torah reader, who never forgets a person’s Hebrew name when called to the Torah, is approaching 90, as is our friendly, droll, dapper professional assigner of aliyot (honors). The meyvn of our holy house in all matters electrical, plumbing and heating is in his 80s. Many of the women in our synagogue, well into their 80s, are witty conversationalists, activists, learned scholars, and role models.

Prudential Insurance currently produces a poignant ad on TV: a professor asks an assortment of individuals, varying in age, how old is the oldest person they know. Responses include many in the 90s, and even 104! The message is loud and clear: Today, numerous people are living longer and well into their 90s. My 93-year-young uncle has a social calendar to be envied. He is a voracious reader, is a daily and admired fixture at the health club, goes dancing once a week with his adoring wife, keeps abreast of local and national news and is a delightful raconteur with his banter and sharp repartee. In the midst of writing this, I paused to email a vibrant, active friend to wish her a happy 89th birthday.

According to the US Census Bureau and the Administration on Aging, the population 65 and over has increased from 35 million in 2000 to 41.4 million in 2011 (an 18% increase) and is projected to increase to 79.7 million in 2040. The 85-plus age group, the largest growing segment in our U.S. population, is projected to nearly triple from 5.7 million in 2011 to 14.1 million in 2040. Look around and ask yourself and your friends, how many 85-plus individuals do you know?

Refocusing my lens to the Jewish perspective: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his discourse, “To Grow in Wisdom” in the Spring 1977 issue of Judaism, wrote, “May I suggest that man’s potential for change and growth is much greater than we are willing to admit, and that old age be regarded not as the age of stagnation but as the age of opportunities for inner growth. The years of old age . . . are indeed formative years, rich in possibilities to unlearn the follies of a lifetime . . . ”

Each Shabbat prior to the Mourner’s Kaddish, we utter the words of Psalm 92, which the Levites recited in the Old Temple: ”. . . they shall bear fruit even in old age.” Interestingly, BaMidbar (Numbers) 8:25 tells us that the Levites were forced to retire at the age of 50! Allow me to interject a personal anecdote. Embracing the words of the English female novelist, George Elliot, “it is never too late to become what you could have been,” I decided to go to medical school in my fiftieth year.

“Three score and ten our years may number/ four score years if granted the vigor.”

King David, who died at 70, was an anomaly compared to the protagonists in the Five Books of Moses, a veritable treasure trove of the lives and longevity of our foremothers and forefathers. In Genesis 23, we read, “the span of Sarah’s life came to one hundred and twenty and seven years.” At the end of Chayeh Sarah (The Life of Sarah) we learn of Abraham’s demise: “he breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented at one hundred and seventy five years.” The Torah illuminates and illustrates many characters that far outlived four score times (and even) longer than we recite at Yizkor. All the days of Methuselah, the man with the longest life span, was 969 years, dying just a week prior to the Big Flood.

History from our ancient texts as well as recent actuarial data and observational studies clearly and unequivocally refute the estimation of life expectancy we recite at Yizkor services. I beseech all of us to send a rallying call for a change to recalibrate and refresh the language we utter when estimating our days on this earth. I recently read about an interesting and ballyhooed concept entitled the “Well Being Paradox.” Social scientists and psychologists have been studying older adults and their findings suggest that although aging is associated with many declines and infirmities, overall subjective well being of their subjects does not appear to diminish with age.

My next challenge will be to dispute Yehudah ben Tema’s favorite teaching in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers):

“At 60 — old age, at 70 — the hoary head, at 80 — the age of “strength,” at 90 — the bent back, at 100 — as one dead and out of this world.” Considered “old age” by the aforementioned saying, I earnestly hope it doesn’t take me three score and ten years to ameliorate Tema’s declaration. But if it does, my recompense is that I will still be younger than Abraham.

As my cohort and I continue to age and travel into the next phase of what life holds for us, I embrace the words of Shma Koleinu: "Hear Our Voices," the prayer we recite on Yom Kippur, as we beseech the Almighty:

“Do not cast us away as we grow old/ Do not desert us as our energy wanes.”

Deborah Shelkan Remis has a background in medicine and public health and enjoys writing about Jewish issues with a different lens. She has presented numerous D’vrai Torah at her synagogue. Deborah has three grown daughters, who are scattered around the four corners of the country like the Children of Israel, and is the proud Savta of her first grandson, who fortunately lives within driving distance. She resides with her husband in Swampscott, Massachusetts.