“An old man walks bent over and appears to be searching for something.”
Today’s Daf Yomi is a stark reminder that growing old is not for the faint of heart. The text is about death and aging and the decaying of the body. We are reminded that as one grows old, he is left with memories of what he did in his youth and if he has not acquired wisdom, not much else. He may be hunched over searching for the life he lost or what is awaiting him in the world-to-come. His eyesight is failing and he requires three legs – i.e., two legs and a cane – to get around. And cruelly, he can no longer escape through sleep because the chatter of birds are enough to keep him awake.
The text continues the poetic description from the previous day of aging from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The verse states: “On the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out the windows shall be dimmed.” We are told that “On the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble” refers to the bone structure and ribs that protect one’s internal organs. “And the strong men shall bow themselves” represents one’s thighs which support his bearing. “And the grinders cease”represent aging and decaying teeth. “And those that look out the windows shall be dimmed” suggest eyes that become dim with age.
When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ḥananya is asked why he does not visit the intellectual hotbed of the House of Avidan, where he presumably frequented in his youth, he states in much more eloquent words that he is simply too old. He says that his hair has turned like snowy mountains, his hearing is failing, he can no longer hear his dogs bark and his teeth have fallen out like grinders that have ceased. He quotes these words from Rav: “I am searching for that which I have not lost, because an old man walks bent over and appears to be searching for something.”
There is more description of decay quoted from Ecclesiastes: “And the doors shall be shut in the marketplace when the sound of the grinding is low, and one shall start up at the voice of a bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low.” We are told that “And the doors shall be shut in the marketplace” signifies aging orifices that no longer function normally. “When the sound of the grinding is low” signifies an aging digestive system. “And one shall start up at the voice of a bird” suggests that as one becomes older even the faint sound of a bird chirping will disturb his sleep. And sadly, “And all the daughters of music shall be brought low” suggest that as one grows older, he will no longer be able to appreciate the beauty in music.
There is more from Ecclesiastes: “Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high and terrors shall be on the road, and the almond tree shall blossom, and the grasshopper shall drag itself along, and the caper berry shall fail, for a person goes to his eternal home, and the mourners circle the marketplace. ” The voice of the Gemara explains: “Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high” suggests that even the smallest little hill is like a steep mountain for an elderly person to climb. “And terrors shall be on the road” suggests the aged must be careful as they walk, or risk falling and suffering serious injury. “And the almond tree shall blossom” suggest the loss of bone density in the aged. “And the grasshopper shall drag itself along” represents the loss of sexual desire.
Rabbi Yishmael tells us that despite all this loss and decay, and the broken bones and fear of falling and loss of eyesight and taste and the reliance on a cane and small mounds that leave us breathless as we pass over them and digestive issues and loss of appreciation for music and grinding teeth and sleepless nights, it is all worth it if we gain wisdom. He said: “With aged men is wisdom; and length of days brings understanding.”
I find as I get older, I am losing a lot, including the ability to think quickly on my feet, and to rapidly retrieve the exact word that captures a given thought in the moment. I need to prepare more than I have in the past for presentations and the sharp person that I once was has become a bit more hesitant and plodding. What I have gained, if not wisdom, is the ability to think deeper than I ever have before.
What I miss as I grow older is deep sleep. I no longer fall into the blissful sleep that I experienced as a younger person and I am aware of the progression of the hours each night. I look at my alarm clock and it is 1am and I look again, and it is 2am and on and on until it is 5am and I can no longer bear to fall back asleep. If not wiser, I am certainly a lot more tired.