Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Light increases — Letter from the Rabbi

Talking with residents throughout the beautiful festival of Chanukah this year gave me a lot to think about. Remember how we light the lights on the menorah: one the first night, two the second, and so on till all eight lights are burning on the eighth night. What starts out as single point of light ends as a glorious display. Night by night, light increases.

So one of the questions I have been raising with residents is whether our light – the light that shines within us – increases as time goes on. I focused particularly on wisdom. As every resident knows, our memory certainly doesn’t improve with passing years, but wisdom is something that may live on within us quite independently of memory.

Some people said that experience made them wiser. As the years pass, we live through so many experiences, for good and for bad; and of course we all make mistakes, which – in theory – we learn from. One resident joked that she is allowed to make the same mistake twice, but twice is the limit! Another said that she always tries to ask herself: what did I learn from that mistake?

I think she’s right. Experience teaches us to make better decisions in how we live our lives only if we can reflect on what we have been through. For that, we need to know ourselves and what is really important for us. If we don’t, we can re-live patterns that don’t help us at all. We grow in wisdom when experience teaches us to understand ourselves and the world around us; that way, we are more able to make judgments that are good and healthy.

When we see our own goodness and also our own failings, and recognize these in others too, we are better able to face life’s challenges without being filled with negativity. It is my belief that love and compassion for ourselves and for all humanity are major elements in wisdom; indeed they are a basis for the biblical injunction to "Love your neighbor as yourself".

As we talked of the increase in light with the passing years, many residents felt that they were more compassionate than they used to be. Surely that compassion arises out of the knowledge that we human beings all share a certain frailty, all are struggling to do the best we can, and none of us can get it right all the time. Isn’t it true that a wise person recognizes and appreciates that shared humanity?

A growing wisdom many bring a deeper sense of what is important to us. It is interesting that, for many of us, our priorities change during our lifetimes. It is not, I think, just because circumstances change: it is also because we change. When residents talk of what is important to them now, they focus frequently on relationships and, most of all, family.

I was fascinated when one resident talked about the importance of compromise. What she meant was that we can’t always have things just as we want. That is true throughout our lives, but comes to the fore particularly as we encounter new situations, such as aging and disability. If you stick to your old view of how things ought to be, you get nowhere. In the words of one person, a lady who had spent years in Auschwitz: "You have to live life as it is, and thank God every day for your life and blessings". This was a theme for several people, and some noted that not every resident is able to adjust to life as it is.

I asked one person, whom I have known since the time she was still walking with ease, how she had managed her transition to having to use a wheelchair. I knew she would give me a thoughtful response; in fact what she said brought tears to my eyes. She said: "I had to face the truth – the truth of my situation. Once I could do that, the rest was easy." She was putting into words what so many residents know, reminding us that wisdom also involves courage – the courage to shine light on our lives and our situations, and face truths we might prefer to ignore.

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007

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