To 120: Growing Old, Staying Young
Family Edition

young at heart HOMEPAGE
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The Parsha in a Nutshell

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)

Moshe is a model of how to age well. With the increase in age expectancy, this has become a significant and challenging issue for many of us. How do we grow old yet stay young?

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George Vaillant, in his book Aging Well and Triumphs of Experience, shares two dimensions that are particularly relevant in the case of Moshe. The first is what he calls generativity, namely taking care of the next generation. Generativity is often marked by undertaking new projects, often voluntary ones, or by learning new skills. Its marks are openness and care.

The other key element is what Vaillant calls becoming the keeper of the meaning. By this he means the wisdom that comes with age. Being a keeper of the meaning means handing on the values of the past to the future. Age brings the reflection and detachment that allows us to stand back and not be swept along by the mood of the moment, or passing fashion, or the madness of the crowd. We need that wisdom, especially in an age as fast-paced as ours, where huge success can come to people still quite young.

What is striking about the book of Devarim, set entirely in the last month of Moshe’s life, is how it shows the aged but still passionate and driven leader, focusing on the twin tasks of generativity and keeper of the meaning.

It would have been easy for Moshe to retire into an inner world of reminiscence, recalling the achievements of an extraordinary life. Or he could have brooded on his failures; above all, the fact that he would never physically enter the land to which he had spent forty years leading the nation. Moshe did neither of those things. Instead in his last days he turned his attention to the next generation and embarked on a new role. No longer Moshe the liberator and lawgiver, he took on the task for which he has become known to tradition: Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moshe our teacher.” It was, in some ways, his greatest achievement.

He told the young Israelites who they were, where they had come from, and what their destiny was. He gave them laws, and did so in a new way. No longer was the emphasis on the Divine encounter, as it had been in Shemot, or on sacrifices as it was in Vayikra, but rather on the laws in their social context.

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He spoke about justice, care for the poor, consideration for employees, and love for the stranger. He set out the fundamentals of Jewish faith in a more systematic way than in any other book of Tanach. He told them of God’s love for their ancestors, and urged them to reciprocate that love with all their heart, soul, and might. He renewed the covenant, reminding the people of the blessings they would enjoy if they kept faith with God, and the curses that would befall them if they did not. He taught them the great song in Ha’azinu, and gave the tribes his deathbed blessing.

Moshe showed us the meaning of generativity, leaving behind a legacy that would outlive him, and what it is to be a keeper of meaning, summoning all his wisdom to reflect on past and future, giving the young the gift of his long experience. By way of personal example, he showed us what it is to grow old while staying young.

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  1. Do you know any “old” people who are “young” at heart? How do you think they keep their spirits so youthful?
  2. How do you think Moshe maintained his passion until his last day?
  3. How are we impacted by Moshe’s efforts towards generativity, and his role as keeper of meaning today?

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A Story for Shabbat

The Past, the Future, and Authenticity

by Rabbi Leonard Matanky

In this week's parsha Rabbi Sacks explains that Moshe taught us the importance of showing care for the next generation (generativity) and becoming a “keeper of meaning” by passing the values of Torah forward. Growing up, I was fortunate to live in the same building as my mother's parents. They were European immigrants and were among the small number of Jews who integrated into American life while remaining Shabbat-observant. My grandfather was a stalwart of his shul and my grandmother managed her home, cooking and baking delicious treats from homemade kreplach to kugels (or, as she pronounced it, “keegals”) and cakes.  

Growing up, every Shabbat morning my grandmother would take us to shul. One time we were exceptionally late, and she wanted to get there at a reasonable hour, so she left without us. On the way, an elderly gentleman, Mr. Schwartz saw her and asked her where we were. She explained that we were late and she had to get to shul. Mr. Schwartz told her, “Mrs. Shiner, it's more important you take them than get there on time.” My grandmother repeated his words often, and never again did she leave us behind, because it was her way of teaching us of our responsibility to the next generation.

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A second story happened before for my bar mitzvah. My grandfather sat me down to pray with him. But unlike in school, he had me read my prayers out loud to ensure I said them correctly. It was hard, and it took a long time. And whenever I made a mistake, he would lovingly, but firmly, admonish me with the Yiddish phrase “nisht ge'fumfit” which was his way of telling me to be accurate and not fake it. While I know that Moshe was the greatest of all Jewish leaders, my grandparents were, for me, the ones who set me on my path of Jewish life. Because they taught me that to be a Jew means to care about both the past and the future, and to be authentic.  

Who is your teacher? Who do you turn to when you consider the words of Moshe, who said, "Ask your father, and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you?"

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The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.

Rabbi Matanky is co-president of Religious Zionists of America, Rabbi of Congregation K.I.N.S. (Chicago), and Dean of Ida Crown Jewish Academy.

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A Closer Look

Rabbi Matanky now shares some of the deeper ideas he learnt from Rabbi Sacks.

What is your favourite quote from Rabbi Sacks and why?

My favourite quote from this week is Rabbi Sacks' explanation of the Torah's description of Moshe:

At the very end of the book, we read that at the age of 120, Moshe’s “eye was undimmed and his natural energy was unabated” (Devarim 34:7). I used to think that these were simply two descriptions until I realised that the first was the explanation of the second. Moshe’s energy was unabated because his eye was undimmed, meaning that he never lost the idealism of his youth, his passion for justice and for the responsibilities of freedom.  

What is so wonderful is that Rabbi Sacks offers an innovative reinterpretation of these two phrases, transforming them from two separate ideas into one dependent upon the other. But also, Rabbi Sacks reinforces the adage that you're only as old as you feel, and if we can remain enthusiastic and idealistic, we can continue to accomplish great things.    

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Which idea expressed in this week's piece do you think is the most important message for the next generation?  

As Rabbi Sacks would say, we must remember that we are a link in the chain and a letter in the scroll. Therefore, we are obligated to generations past and to generations to come. This obligation is what Moshe spoke of when he served as both the "keeper of the faith," transmitting the values of the past, and a "generative leader" guiding and directing the next generation. We are part of a glorious and great nation, and because we stand on the shoulders of giants, we can accomplish amazing things!

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Torah Trivia

Question: Do you know any other names for the Book of Devarim?

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).

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Educational Companion

Torah Trivia: this week's answer

Sefer Devarim gains its name from the second word in the first passuk of the book
(see Devarim 1:1).

It’s also known as Mishneh Torah (Devarim 17:18), which literally means “the repetition of the Torah”, as Moshe spends the majority of this book retelling the people to keep the Torah, and recounting his life history.

It is called Deuteronomy in English, for similar reasons.

According to one opinion in the Gemara (see Avorah Zarah 25a), it is also called Sefer HaYashar, the Book of the Righteous, based on the passuk, “And you shall do that which is “yashar” – “right” and good in the eyes of Hashem (Devarim 6:18).

Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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