Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Vayehee Erev, Vayehee Vowker, Yom Echod


…..Vayehee erev, vayehee vowker, yom echod ….. and there was evening and there was morning, one day.

That is the second part of the fifth sentence of the Torah, indicating that Judaism is very much a time conscious religion. In fact, not only Bereshit but also the other four Books of Moses constantly remind us of time and the meaning of time in human experience. We Jews honor time.

The Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy”, also honors time. It is the most neglected of the Ten Commandments although it was the one means we Jews had of surviving the 1,900 years of European persecution endured by our people.

Time is honored in other ways in Judaism. We celebrate the arrival of every month. This is called Rosh Chodesh. Those who attend a Beth Hatefillah regularly know that the New Month is announced during the Shabbat service preceding the New Month and that this is done twelve (or thirteen) times each year. In addition, we celebrate the New Year every fall and call that celebration Rosh Hashanah or the Beginning of the Year.

Our other Holy Days are also related to time. In the spring we celebrate Pesach, which serves not only to remind us of our good fortune of living in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, but serves also to celebrate the coming of spring after living through another tough Buffalo winter.

In the summer we celebrate Shavuoth. This is an exceedingly important Holy Day during the Jewish year because it serves to remind us of the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. This Holy Day is also called Pentecost. That Greek word is derived from pente, meaning five, as in Pentagon, and kosta, meaning ten times. Hence, Pentecost means fifty and refers to the time it took the Children of Israel to reach Mt. Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt. We count the seven weeks or 49 days of that journey and then remember the Constitution of the Jews, i.e. the Ten Commandments.

A large number of Jews do not know that Shavuoth exists and have no idea that the giving of the Ten Commandments is recognized at all.

For many centuries, time was also honored in Judaism by the manner in which the generations treated one another. European Judaism, and European life among other, non -Jewish, peoples, demanded that the older generation be honored and respected by reason of age alone. This comes as a great surprise to Americans, including American Jews, as we have largely institutionalized an attitude toward ageing which sociologists call gerontophobia. Here you have another Greek word (If you want to know English, study Greek and Latin). It means the fear and hatred of the old.

Dr. Ursula Falk and I have written a book called Ageism, the Aged and Aging in America which was published by Charles Thomas, Inc. in 1997. That book uses the phrase “ageism” in the same sense that we use the words “racism” and “sexism” to indicate the disabilities imposed on those who differ from the majority by reason of race or sex or age. In the sociological context “majority” does not mean greater in numbers but greater in rights and privileges.

Now it can be said with certainty that racism has been defeated in America. This is visible by the recent elimination from power of Sen. Trent Lott for praising Sen. Strom Thurmond on his 100th birthday.

Sexism has also been defeated in the U.S.A.  If you want to read a book describing the ascent of women to power in America, read my book Sex, Gender and Social Change, which you can find in any library. In Jewish life in particular, women have now feminized our religion, our social services, our fund raising and our family life. It may well be that men are obsolete. If so, then evolution will gradually eliminate men from nature and a one sex, female human will emerge some years from now.

Ageism is of course of the same character as the other two branches of this triumvirate of discrimination and prejudice. Ageism teaches that anyone older than ourselves is ipso facto devalued. Examples of this attitude abound. Here are a few.

The old are more likely to seek the help of the medical profession than the young because nature so dictates. Medical personnel, however, despise the old. This became visible in 1968 when Robert Butler, M.D., published his book Why Survive?  Being Old in America. Butler shows in that book that ageism is at the very core of the medical profession and that those who need or believe they need medical assistance are generally burdened, not only with the pain and discomfort of illness, but with the additional rejection and insults which the medical profession devolves upon the aged. We call this “punishment without crime” and discuss this in yet another one of our books, i.e. Stigma: How We Treat Outsiders.

Old age had become an opprobrium (ob =against; probrum=infamy) in American life in general and in Jewish life as well for several reasons. The first is tradition. This country was developed by immigrants. Immigrants are usually young people willing to face the hardships and dangers of migrating far from home into the unknown. The fact is that the colonization of America and Israel and other places had to be undertaken by young, strong and determined people. Today, of course, this is no longer true. Whereas the U.S. had a young population in the first several centuries of colonization and discovery, we now have a much older population. Nevertheless, the belief in the “youth culture” continues, so that the very word “old” is a curse word. Even grade school children call teachers who are no more than 25 years old “old bats”.

A second reason for ageism in America was industrialization. I use the word “was” deliberately because we are now a post-industrial country. Prior to the 20th century, we were an agricultural country. Therefore, the younger generation inherited the land from their parents. This meant that those who wished to inherit needed to take some regard of the older members of the family. Once agriculture gave way to industry and the family farm or family business became relatively scarce, inheritance was no longer the only means of acquiring property. Therefore, the old lost the power to leave the family farm to the young who had already established themselves in their own businesses or their careers, permitting them to ignore the old “down on the farm”.

A third reason for the decline in prestige and honor accorded the old in America and among Jews in particular has been social and horizontal mobility. Social mobility refers to the movement up or down the income and prestige ladder available in American society. We Jews have been outstandingly successful in increasing our education and our incomes over the years. One consequence of that mobility has been the belief among many that the “old” who are not acquainted with the latest technology or who have less of an income than the young are threatening our arrival among the “upper crust”, who cannot be expected to tolerate the sight of the uneducated, not-so-wealthy, accented “old”.

Horizontal mobility refers to movement from place to place. Large numbers of American Jews live far away from their parents. In fact, it is almost certain that all or the majority of adult children live in places other than the town of their birth. It is common that the parents of two, three and even five children will have no children in town, so that they are hardly known to their grandchildren whom they see only at Bar Mitzvahs and other “occasions”. As a consequence, many grandparents, “old folks”, are forgotten by their children and grandchildren, whose entire life consists of consuming whatever money will buy. The concept of “family” is lost over long distances and many years as the old are viewed as a burden to be discarded as soon as possible.

Because Americans live longer now than ever before we reject the old also because they remind us of the disabilities old age brings with it and because the old remind us of death. While the debilities of old age were at one time the accepted responsibility of the young or younger members of the family, we seek to remove these burdens from us by establishing “nursing homes”, which are of course not homes and in which no one is nursed. The function of “nursing homes” is to segregate the old from the young, just as the function of school is to segregate the young from the old. Age segregation is of course common in our lives. Children meet only children in school. Adolescents deal only with other adolescents and the middle aged talk only to the middle aged. Even at such events as “shivah” (seven), referring to the seven days of mourning for the deceased, the visitors usually talk only to other visitors and ignore the bereaved widow, who appears too old to be worthy of conversation.

Finally, we fear, segregate and reject the old because they are closer to death than we are, or hope we are. Death was at one time a common occurrence in every family. People died at home amidst their loved ones who stayed with them until the last moment. Now, however, we die in hospitals among the uncaring. We are tied to machines and tubes of all sorts and we die alone. Death is “swept under the carpet” and we don’t want to hear about it. By rejecting the old we hope to at least escape any reminder of death.

Yet, our own death is really not our business. The Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that lesson long ago. Of course, Epicurus was no “Epicurean”, or “Apicoires”, as the Yiddish speakers like to say. He understood that we are here to live as well as we can and that the good life is one of love, study and contemplation. He also taught that much can be learned from our elders, whose experience cannot be read in technical books concerning the latest computer.

Time is of course a human invention. We have to agree with Spinoza and Kant that we cannot escape our human limitations no matter how much we may have learned from science, and that time is only our perception of that infinity in which we are born and in which we die.

Judaism gives meaning to that infinity. Judaism gives meaning to our lives. Judaism gives us reason to live and explains the purpose of our existence. Therefore those of us who are Jews and understand our tradition are fortunate because we know that we are part of that great chain of human ascent from Abraham to our own day and beyond in time.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2002).


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