As Cantor Sacks notes, Moses’ language in this section, “rouses the people before him to confidence and promise, and to inspiration and importance.”
Moses is an old man when he speaks the words of this Torah portion to all the Israelites just as they are about to enter Canaan. It’s his last chance to tell the people what they need to know in order to make it become the promised land. His message is clear: everyone needs to be there. Everyone. Men, women, children, the old, the young old, the powerful, the stranger/immigrant, the leaders, the workers. No one is invisible. No one is unimportant. No one is isolated.
It is a powerful vision of community, one so important that this is the section of Torah we read on Yom Kippur morning. We can be very proud of our Reform Movement for all the work it is doing to become more inclusive. Fifty years ago, Jewish feminism changed Judaism by bringing women’s experience from the margins to the center. That consciousness created a bigger Jewish tent, enabling us to ask what other groups have been marginalized and to find ways to welcome them: LGBTQ Jews, Jews of color, differently abled Jews, poor Jews, immigrant Jews, Jews by choice… Our community has been and continues to be enriched by its diversity and its inclusiveness.
We can be proud, and yet we still have work to do to make this vision of community true.
Just ask anyone over 60. I’m 69, a boomer. Social science research says that my cohort is living 31 years longer than our grandparents did. That’s 31 years, not tacked on to the end of our life but occurring just after the middle. It is a new stage, between midlife (when we built careers and raised families), and frail old age. And it’s a stage that is often ignored by the Jewish community. The truth is, the Jewish community pays a lot of attention to families with young children, and to millennials… and it is attentive to those in frail old age, but it doesn’t seem to notice people in this new stage.
Several years ago, our synagogue realized that people often left the synagogue after their kids grew up because they felt the synagogue wasn’t addressing their needs. So we organized a listening campaign where we talked in small gatherings in people’s homes with over 250 congregants from the ages of 55 to the late 70s about what mattered to them at this stage of their lives. We asked what kept them up at night and what got them up in the morning. Four fears emerged: becoming invisible, becoming isolated, being without purpose, and being dependent. And four needs emerged: to find ways of giving back, to create community that would be there for them as they grew older, to find ways to deepen their spirituality, and to respond to concerns about themselves and people they loved, particularly about end of life issues. And they asked that our synagogue help them find ways to do all this.
On Yom Kippur, we sing Sh’ma Koleinu, “Hear Our Voice,” with its poignant plea: Al tashlicheinu l’eit zikna, “Do not cast us aside when we are old.” On Yom Kippur we notice that we are all, no matter what our age, growing older. Perhaps it is time for us as a Jewish community to begin to think together about what eit zikna could mean. Zikna comes from the root zakein, the word that means “old.” But another Rabbinic interpretation sees it as shorthand for “one who has acquired wisdom.”
Imagine what that Promised Land would look like if all of us really stood together—all of us seen, all of us valued, all of us welcomed, and all of us sharing our wisdom.
Rabbi Laura Geller is rabbi emerita of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and co-author, with her husband Richard Siegel (z’l), of the recently published book Getting Good at Getting Older.
Published on 9/28/2019