In one of the most moving passages of the High Holiday liturgy worshippers implore God “not to cast us off into old age.” But old age, like the future, ain’t what it used to be. Consider the case of Don Pellemann. In 2015 at the age of one hundred, Pellemann set five world records in athletics. In so doing, he also became the first centenarian to break 27 seconds in the one hundred meter dash. With all his success he was disappointed in his performance in the pole vault, missing all three of his attempts to establish yet another record at the San Diego Senior Olympics, musing that he thought he was in better shape.
Consider the case of Fauja Singh who completed his first marathon run in 2017 at the age of one hundred or the case of Portuguese film-director Manoel de Oliveira who directed The Strange Case of Angelica in 2010 when he was 102. Bo Gilbert modeled for the British Vogue at the age of 100 and a fellow Brit, Queen Elizabeth II reigns over an entire commonwealth of nations at the age of 93 and shows no signs of wanting to step down…or needing to.
Within the Jewish tradition we find first century Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah the dean of scholars in his day still active at age ninety. Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, noted Kabbalist, remained active until his death in 2006 at the age of 103. Over one million Israelis are reputed to have attended his funeral. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism continued his teaching and writing until his death at age 102. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk was still giving interviews in 2017 at the age of 102.
This being the case, has our High Holiday prayer been compromised by manifold examples of people who pushed the envelope of aging? Before answering, it would be wise to consider the second part of our petition: “When my strength fails me, do not abandon me.” It is no longer the case that age alone is our enemy. Rather, it is infirmity. We need no longer be troubled with number of years we have lived so long as we are healthy. It was once the case that age and infirmity were co-terminus. That is no longer so. What we are really expressing is our hope to live long and healthy lives. And my our prayers be answered.