Rabbi Abraham Heschel on Old Age and Facing Death

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The following quotes are from Samuel Dresner, written in his introduction to I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“Several years before Abraham Heschel’s death in 1972, he suffered a near fatal heart attack from which he never fully recovered. I traveled to his apartment in New York to see him. He had gotten out of bed for the first time to greet me and was sitting in the living room when I arrived, looking weak and pale. He spoke slowly and with some effort, almost in a whisper. I strained to hear his words.

“Sam,” he said, “when I regained consciousness, my first feelings were not of despair or anger. I felt only gratitude to God for my life, for every moment I had lived. I was ready to depart. ‘Take me, O Lord,’ I thought, ‘I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime.’

Exhausted by the effort, he paused for a moment, then added: “That is what I meant when I wrote…I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.”

Dresner later relfected on those words from Rabbi Heschel when Dresner wrote…”I understood then what I had experienced: the lesson that how a man meets death is a sign of how he has met life.”

How many people have chased success so exclusively that they lost their sense of wonder? How many people have gotten so caught up in chasing the wind that they never took time to stand in awe of the God who has made everything? How many times do we stop all that we are doing and stand in awe and wonderment of the miracles God works in and around us on a daily basis? Maybe it is time that more of us took the time to ask for wonder and recognize that God is at work in this world with a greater frequency than even our prayers ask for him to be. Don’t you think?

Heschel once wrote this about old age, “Old age is not a defeat but a victory, not a punishment but a privilege. One ought to enter old age as one enters the senior year at a university, in exciting anticipation of consummation.”

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