By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
I recently read “The Man Who Died Twice,” the second book in Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series. The four main characters are in their 70s and, when referring to their ages, acknowledge that they are old. After reading the book (which was very funny, but also had some moving moments), I realized that, at 68, we are very close in age. Why didn’t I think of that immediately? Most likely because the characters are retired and live in a British retirement village with others their age and older.
It was not so much age, but life expectations, that made the early part of the year difficult. I did remarkably well when my mom died in September 2022, which was a surprise because we’d been very close. Then in late January or early February of last year, I learned a friend from rabbinical school was dying. I spent most of that evening crying. When thinking about it afterward, that seemed an overreaction: we’d only seen in each once since we graduated and had lost touch when he and his wife retired and moved back to Canada. Then I realized I was having a delayed reaction not just to my mom’s death, but to my general life situation. Any kind of major change in our lives can do that. That’s something I’ve been dealing with since then. It’s also something I’m sure I’ll continue to deal with as the years pass and I face different challenges.
This was also a very difficult year politically, something I’m not going to go into detail about here. (If you are a regular reader of this column, you already know what I think about the events of the past year. If you’re not and you’re curious, you can find my previous columns at www.thereportergroup.org/executive-editor.) But with all the losses and changes that have occurred in my personal life, I made a decision not to let what’s happening in the U.S. and Israel take over my life. That doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about either, but I’ve placed them in a mental box, at least some of the time, so I can enjoy the good parts of my life. That’s a luxury many people don’t have, but my living in anguish is not going to help them. In fact, it takes away the strength I’ll need when it comes time for me to act.
During my chaplaincy work, I was recently reminded of something I hadn’t thought about in awhile. Someone showed me a coloring sheet that featured characters from Winnie the Pooh. I’m not sure if the person I was talking to understood what I meant when I said, “I am an Eeyore who wants to be a Tigger,” but that didn’t matter. The statement was a reminder to myself. My basic nature tends to focus on the bad side of things, to assume the worst. My desire – what I work toward – is to find joy in the world. That takes effort, but it is reflected in Jewish tradition: a rabbinic teaching says that, after we die, we are required to account for all the righteous joys we denied ourselves. I’m trying to make certain my list is not a long one.
Which brings me back to the characters in “The Man Who Died Twice.” Being old has not stopped them from righting wrongs, even if sometimes they do so by not-so-legal means. They may need a nap in the afternoon or fall asleep during a long car trip. They are not as spry as they once were, but they are aware they can still make a difference in this world. If I am to take any lesson from 2023, that is a good one to remember.