The Mitzvah Model Brings Meaning and Mission to Late Life

Article excerpt

What are you doing with the rest of your life? This is the question for elders looking ahead to years or decades stripped of the jobs or roles that previously defined or confined them. It is the question both for those with energy, economic resources and good health, and for those who are severely limited by physical or cognitive impairments. Popular culture offers a variety of answers: Move to a sunny clime, take up a sport, work to look young, or just sit back and relax. All of these answers demean and diminish the older person seeking meaning and mission.

A very different answer to this question comes from a group of 80- to- 100 year-old nursing home residents with whom I worked. I recall one incident that particularly highlighted their continuing commitment to being involved in the world.


The audience members came in wheelchairs and on walkers. They sat close to the speaker, since it was difficult for many of them to hear and see him. These frail elderly residents of a Jewish nursing home had gathered to hear a talk about Ethiopian Jewry. Many of them had never heard of this ancient African Jewish community, and were surprised to learn that there were black Jews. The speaker begged the residents to help Yonah, a 26-- year-old Ethiopian Jew who had been rescued from life-threatening oppression by Operation Moses, a remarkable airlift of thousands of Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. In his new land, he was barely subsisting on government stipends and trying to find work. He was desperately worried about his mother and siblings, who were still marooned in Ethiopia.

The nursing home residents decided to "adopt" Yonah. They wrote letters with the help of volunteers, who took dictation from them. They sent photos and expressed sentiments such as, "Don't give up, you'll soon be with your family," and "I remember when I left my family in Russia when I came to America as a young man. You should find the happiness I found in my new home," and, "God should watch over you, and by Pesach (Passover), you and your family should all be together."

Writing letters was not enough for these nursing home residents-turned-activists. They wanted to do something. They raised money to help rescue Yonah's family by contributing dimes and quarters from their meager spending money and asking family members to donate as well. Their giving spurred local synagogues to join in raising over $6,000 for Yonah's family. Several months later, Yonah wrote back, "When you write, I feel like I have brothers who care about me. Everything you wrote, it has come to be. You wrote that God would bring my family to me. At Pesach, my mother and brother came to Israel."


Yonah's frail, gray-haired redeemers found something to do with the rest of their lives. They decided to make a difference, and in doing so found themselves transformed as well. No longer did they think of themselves only as sick people or recipients of care; they had become redeemers, performing the sacred mitzvah (obligation) of pidyon shevuyim, redeeming the captive.

These elders exemplify mitzvah (pronounced MITS-vah), a model from Jewish tradition with powerful implications for older people and those who care for them. Judaism sees old age as a time of continued mission, in which one is called to a life of meaning. In old age, as in the rest of life, Jews are obligated to engage in holiness through performing the mitzvot, the divine commandments that encompass both ritual observance and righteous action to repair the world. Far from being a time of retirement from a life of obligation, the Mitzvah Model suggests that the latter part of life can be a time of renewal and intensification of commitment.

Even those who are struggling with physical or cognitive incapacity are not exempt from the divine commandments. …