By Rabbi Jack Riemer/JNS.org
Sara Davidson’s The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and A Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery is a new book that should be read by all senior citizens, and by those who hope to live a long life, for it raises a question that most of us have not been taught how to answer: What should we do in that final stage of our lives?
Many of us continue working past the traditional retirement age of 65, not because we need the money and not because we find the job fulfilling, but simply because it is the only thing we know how to do, and we are afraid of the emptiness we may experience if we stop. Some of us play cards or golf daily as a way of avoiding questions for which we have no answer. Old age homes offer activities like water exercises, shuffleboard, bridge, bingo, trips to the supermarket, and visits to the doctor – as if only the bodies of the elderly need nurturing, and not their minds. Life expectancy is rising, more and more of us are growing older, and yet most of us have no one to turn to who can teach us how to prepare for this last stage of life. That is why The December Project is so important.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (commonly known as “Reb Zalman”), a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement who died last month at age 89, was in his mid-80s when he decided to meet once a week with Davidson, a well-known author, in order to explore this topic. He answered her questions, not systematically but in a stream of consciousness kind of way, in which every question led to a story, and every story led to another one. After circling around from memory to insight to story to song, he came back to the question that Davidson had raised, the central question of The December Project.
The book is too full of insights to summarize, but here are some of Schachter-Shalomi’s suggestions that I found especially worth thinking about:
Make a life review
Count up all the things that you have accomplished that give you pride, and all the mistakes you have made that cause you regret. Forgive those who have hurt you over the years, and see how often the “harm” they caused you actually ended up leading to a blessing. For instance, Reb Zalman thinks of the man who fired him from his first rabbinical pulpit at a time when he really needed that job. Looking back, he realizes how rich his life has been, and how many adventures he has had, and how many great people he has met – all because he lost that job. How can he still be angry at that man in view of what losing that job led to?
Get ready for your end
This means more than just arranging your financial affairs and telling your loved ones what they mean to you, which most of us know to do. It means being inwardly prepared so that you will not be angry or surprised when the time comes. Schachter-Shalomi recalls that when he was a shochet (kosher slaughterer) years ago, he would comfort the chickens that he slaughtered by whispering to them that he was not there to hurt them, and that he was not their enemy, but that he was there to help them climb to a higher level by becoming food for human beings. As they worked together, Reb Zalman and the African American chicken-pluckers he worked with would sing spiritual songs together. One of the songs that they taught him, “Travelin’ Shoes,” told of how when the angel of death comes to call, good people will respond that they are ready, that in fact they are wearing their traveling shoes just in case he comes. Schachter-Shalomi would get up and dance a few steps while singing that song, and as he did, what it means to get ready to meet your end became tangibly real.
Start disengaging from your body
Reb Zalman says that we and our bodies are bound together during life, and that old age is the time to start loosening the strings. Say to your body, “Thank you for carrying me so long, and be patient. It will soon be time for you to rest, and it will soon be time for me to go on without you to a whole new level of being.”
Learn to let go
Knowing that the power you have must eventually be surrendered, and that the status you possess is not permanent, is not an easy reality to come to terms with. But unless you can do that, your old age will be spoiled by efforts to clutch onto what cannot be held forever. Schachter-Shalomi ordained nearly 200 rabbis, cantors, and pastors in his lifetime, and then, when old age came upon him, he withdrew and let others take his place. He attended the annual conferences of his students for as long as he could, but he no longer needed to be their guru. Instead, he drew back and made room for his students to become teachers, so that the Jewish Renewal movement that he had started would live on after him.
Sara Davidson captured the spirit of this man of many sides in her interviews, and she has transmitted his insights for how to live in the “December” stage of life to all those who read her book. Since we already have books on how to be a teenager or an adult, but so few wise books on how to live in old age, I recommend this volume wholeheartedly.
The December Project, by Sara Davidson. Harper One (New York, 2014). 193 pages. $25.99.