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Here was a thought provoking exchange shared by a rabbi about an elderly congregant.  It is an important for us to realize we don’t always have the answers.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Last week, I was speaking with an elderly friend and I mentioned a pursuit she “used to” engage in. Her response was morose, along the lines of, “Sure, I used to. There are many things I used to do. I have to get used to ‘used to’.”

I felt terrible, of course; remembering what you can no longer do is a bitter experience, particularly as the “used to”s accumulate. I wanted to point out new activities she could become “used to” – authors she could read, musicians she could listen to, places she could go walking, and so on – but I was afraid of being trite. She knows perfectly well that there are new things she could do. And suggesting these new “used to”s could sound like naively and insensitively suggesting that these new pursuits could offset her losses. So I said nothing, basically, and just listened.

Listening was my go-to option when I was in the pulpit. I was younger than most of my congregants, and far less experienced in life, and so I wasn’t confident in offering ideas. I buried people 3-4 times my age. I met with people about their issues in raising teenagers, before I had children of my own. Drugs and alcohol, marital issues, and so on – I found listening far more useful than offering advice that had the potential to be way off.

Listening has many merits of its own: It allows people comfortable space to talk through their issues, it validates the speaker, it educates the listener. Mishlei 12:25 says, “Worry in the heart lowers it (ישחנה),” and in a play on words we read the clause, “One who has worry in the heart should speak of it (ישיחנה),” because of these benefits. But on its most basic level, listening is useful because it’s “first, do no harm” safe.

I wish I could have said something to help my “used to” friend feel better, but I guess I’m okay settling for safe.