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Torah with Morrie #18: Avoiding Youth Envy

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Boruch Leff

Appreciating the gifts that old age provides.

Is there a person alive who hasn't said at one time, "Oh, I wish I were young again"? The days and weeks become months, the months develop into years, and the years pile up very quickly. And then we start to become shy and embarrassed when someone asks us how old we are. Why does the question make us squirm?

For the same reason there is a large and prosperous market for disguising one's true age is thriving: youth envy. But embarking on a path of anti-wrinkling creams, anti-aging 'wonder' drugs and the like is unwise.

"We can mask the outward signs of the process or try to keep up old routines in spite of it, but we cannot change the fact that we are all moving toward physical change. The best we can do -- and it is a lot -- is to accept the inevitability of aging and try to adapt to it. . . The denial of aging and the attempt to fight it are counterproductive, a failure to understand and accept an important aspect of our existence." (Dr. Andrew Weil, Author of 'Aging Naturally', quoted in Time Magazine, October 17, 2005)

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the father modern Mussar (character perfection and ethics) would always say that the first commandment in being a Jew is never attempt to lie to yourself. To thine own self be true. Perhaps the biggest self-deception we can engage in is trying to fight the aging process.

"If you're always battling against getting older, you're always going to be unhappy, because it will happen anyhow....Mitch, it is impossible for the old not to envy the young. I envy them being able to go to the health club, or go for a swim. But the issue is to accept who you are and revel in that. This is your time to be in your thirties. I had my time to be in my thirties, and now is my time to be 78. You have to find what's good and beautiful in your life as it is now. Looking back makes you competitive and age is not a competitive issue."

(Tuesdays with Morrie)

And there is much good and beauty in the life of an older person.

Ethics of the Fathers states: "One who studies Torah from the young is likened to one who eats unripe grapes and drinks unfermented wine from his container. One who learns from the old is likened to eating ripe grapes and drinking aged wine"(Avos: 4:26).

Why are two allegories used, grapes and wine? Isn't one enough?

Wisdom from an older person is like aged wine. It gets tastier and tastier.

Often, the insights of one's youth are based on unripe thoughts. We think we know it all when we're young and all too often we ignore the advice of those older than us and discover our fallacies. Like unripe grapes, these ideas lead to bitter results. Sometimes the proposal appears to be a good one at the start and only later it becomes clear that it was terribly wrong. Like unfermented wine, it can taste sweet at first, but soon after it makes you feel sick.

Wisdom from an older person is like aged wine. As wine ages, it becomes tastier and tastier. So too, as the years go by, one's knowledge increases, and becomes more profound and clear. This is why Joseph sent his father Jacob wine as a present (Talmud Megila 16b). Most things in life weaken and deteriorate when aged. Wine is an exception to this rule. Joseph reminded his father that like wine, life itself is more full of flavor when aged.

Old age is a period of life when we can appreciate our life's accomplishments and draw from them to help those younger than us with their struggles. It can be a time of intense giving -- the transfer of wisdom from the old to the young. Older people should not be envious of the young because they have so much to offer and give to them. The young can easily begin to envy them.

The reality is that the most effective way to avoid youth-envy is to realize that there is nothing to be jealous of at all:

"The truth is part of me is every age. I'm a three-year-old, I'm a five-year-old, I'm a 37- year-old, I'm a 50-year-old. I've been through all of them and I know what it's like. I delight in being a child, when it's appropriate to be a child, I delight in being a wise old man when it's appropriate to be a wise old man. Think of all I can be! I am every age up to my own... How can I be envious of where you are -- when I've been there myself?" (Tuesdays with Morrie)

These are the ways we can appreciate all the gifts that old age provides.

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