Even more than the yearning voice of the cantor during the High Holidays, I remember the palpable weeping of the worshippers, especially that of my grandmother and her contemporaries in the women's gallery of my childhood synagogue in Brooklyn, reaching a crescendo when the congregants would cry out, "Do not cast us into old age."
To this day, I cannot forget the haunting, heartbroken melody of that prayer.
But who doesn't want to live to a ripe old age? It is certainly better to die when one is old rather than when one is young. So why all the tears associated with this prayer? My beloved maternal grandmother (z"l) would explain that the stress here is on the verb in that sentence.
What a person could wish to be is "eased" into old age, little by little, in control of all his faculties, particularly the mind, and if the body has to fail, let it fade ever so slowly. The tragedy is when a healthy, vital person, even if advanced in years, suffers a sudden stroke or a massive heart attack, and overnight the body is overwhelmed with the sudden fact of being imprisoned in a helpless body or bereft of the ability to remember even our loved ones.
In order to truly understand the significance of this prayer, it is important to note that the Yom Kippur text slightly modified the original verse in Psalms 7 1:10. There, King David is speaking for himself: Do not cast "me" into old age, while we turn the "me" into "us" — do not cast us into old age.
On the most obvious level, the use of "us" alerts us to the idea of a collective: that the Jewish people and its historical traditions shouldn't be cast into the mode of the outworn and outdated, thrown into the junk heap of history.
In effect, every person's ancestors in our historic grave sites around the world and all of those memorial plaques on the synagogue walls, are saying: Don't cast us out, don't relegate us to a once-a-year sexton's click of the tiny lamp next to each name. Our sacred books and our holy days are imploring us to study the texts and incorporate their dates into our contemporary calendar, to keep them relevant and meaningful for the younger generation.
Listen to the Message
In a similar vein, we dare not become old in our thinking, out of touch with the times.
At the same time that we must remain true to our tradition, we dare not be reluctant to address the generation's questions and dilemmas. The message of teshuvah ("repentance") is that we have to listen every year to that year's unique message.
We pray to God to be alive to change, and not to become cast into a mold — old-thinking and too set in our ways.
We pray that God not make us into an old nation, with all the frailties of the weak and infirm, too old to fight, too tired to develop creatively.
Some 60 years ago, it looked as if the Nazis had cast the Jewish people into sudden "old age," if not actual death throes for the millions.
Yet while the Jews were being slaughtered in Europe, the prayer of "not being cast into old age" was being answered in Israel, where one of the oldest peoples on earth was being transformed into one of the youngest among the family of nations.
This experience — from the depths of exile to the crown of redemption — should make us value what it means to live in an age of miraculous beginnings and help us in guiding other nations in their own quest for a world of peace.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah in Efrat, Israel.