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Et zikna: What is the time for aging?

Challenging Yom Kippur's portrayal of seniors as pathetic: Old age is for joy, gratitude, patience and wisdom

Al tashlikheini l’et zikna.”
Do not cast us away as we grow old; do not desert us as our energy wanes.
–Liturgy of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement

These lines, repeated several times during the Yom Kippur service, terrified me as I approached 70. Like most of us when we become aware that we are aging, I was scared of the big three “I’s”: invisibility, irrelevance and insecurity — of being cast away. In chanting the words al tashlikheini l’et zikna, I was now linking my fate with centuries of aging Jews…and each one of them had died. Surely a downward procession!

However, this year, at 74, I am finding new meaning in these words. Paradoxically, the meaning of “et zikna” — traditionally translated as the time of weakness and abandonment — has morphed into the age of wisdom. “Do not let yourself grow spiritually old,” I remind myself as I pray. “Do not abandon your spirit, your energies, your relationships, your love and compassion. Indeed, every day, look for moments of renewal.”

This generation has seen a revolution in lifespan. We who turn 60 today have the prospect of living at least another 30 years with relatively good health and vitality. We are pioneers, entering a stage of life never experienced by earlier generations. This is our “third chapter,” our “third act,” our time of “active aging.”

Put another way, it is our “et zikna,” our time to age wisely.

Instead of buying into our culture’s message that we are sliding down the slope of decline — a fate from which we obviously want to flee — we can assert that these years are a time of opportunity for discovery.

Speaking to the White House Conference on Aging in 1961, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presciently taught:

One ought to enter old age the way one enters the senior year at a university, in exciting anticipation of consummation…[Our] potential for change and growth is much greater than we are willing to admit and old age [should} be regarded not as the age of stagnation but as the age of opportunities for inner growth….The years of old age may enable us to attain the high values we failed to sense, the insights we have missed, and the wisdom we ignored.

It has taken our society more than 50 years to begin to catch up with Heschel’s insights. But now many of us are exploring our new stage of life — our et zikna — with curiosity, enthusiasm and spirit. In this brave new world, there is a lot to learn, and to try; choices to make, risks to take, grief and loss to feel, fun and joy.

The choice between decline and opportunity hit me dramatically at 69 — the year that growing older became real to me. What is my future? The question felt urgent. Should I/could I retire from a job I loved but was exhausted by, directing the Institute for Jewish Spirituality? Who would I be? What would I do? Who would need me? Would I still be part of that community? What would be my purpose?

Reminiscent of questions I had pondered over half a century earlier, these were paralyzing questions at this stage of life when I had assumed I would have all the answers.

Luckily, friends and a beloved mindfulness teacher helped me work my way through the morass of doubt and possibility. I found a way clear to retirement. My successor is doing a brilliant job, my colleagues and associates are still friends.

Most miraculously, I found purpose in engrossing new projects. One of them was writing, with my colleague Dr. Linda Thal, a book called Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit that explores the important social, emotional and spiritual challenges and opportunities we face as we grow older.

Based on our book, we are training people to facilitate Wise Aging groups. The transition into a new stage of life continues to unroll slowly for me.

With all the personal growth and insight, we inevitably experience sadness and fear during this time. We miss friends who have moved or passed on; we regret what we can no longer do. Sometimes we feel lonely and frightened. Although we can learn to prepare consciously for the end of our lives, we will inevitably have moments of real grief that we, too, will one day leave this life.

But we must learn to take the grief with the great goodness of having achieved a long life…our insight. Living with a deeper understanding of the complexity and paradox inherent in our life can be a source of great joy. Having close relationships, finding meaning in each day, giving to others, cultivating our capacity for gratitude, patience and curiosity, and appreciating the richness of our life to date all help us wake up to the new day with anticipation.

This year, on Yom Kippur — whether or not you are in synagogue — you might want to think about your “et zikna” — no matter what your age. This year, take stock of the ways in which you might be able to accept the disappointments and setbacks and to see the opportunities that loom. Allow yourself to think deeply: for what and for whom are you truly grateful?

Most critically, how might you turn your life towards your deepest aspirations? Still. Now.

This year, when I pray these words on Yom Kippur, I will set them as an intention for myself: Al tashlikheni — Don’t give up on life, don’t let my dreams, my spirit, my relationships grow old. Don’t give up on the possibility of change, teshuva, even until the very last moment of life.

L’et zikna — in this new phase of life, the phase of Wise Aging, let me find meaning in new situations. When I can do less physically, may I do more emotionally and spiritually. May I see myself as authoring my Book of Life, chapter by chapter, page by page, word by word.

About the Author
Rabbi Rachel Cowan is a consultant to the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Wise Aging program. The former Executive Director of the Institute, she was named as one of the 50 leading rabbis in the United States by Newsweek Magazine in 2007 and in 2010, and as one of the 50 leading women rabbis by the Forward in 2010. Rabbi Cowan received her ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1989. From 1990-2003 she was Program Director for Jewish Life and Values at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Her work has been included, among other places, in Moment and Sh'ma, and she is the author, with her late husband Paul Cowan, of Mixed Blessings: Untangling the Knots in an Interfaith Marriage. Her most recent book, co-authored with Dr. Linda Thal, is Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit (2015). She lives in New York City, near her two children, and four grandchildren.
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