Dying, like birth, is something best done alone. And while in birthing there are occasional Buy One Get One Free twin deals, when it comes to dying, if two people are dying together it is usually the result of a tragedy like a car accident or fire. But while we all hope to die alone, not taking anyone with us, we hope to not die lonely. That too is a tragedy.
Today, an epidemic of lonely deaths is creeping up in all parts of the world. Lonely deaths are when people die and there is no one around to even notice. They are often discovered when the smell of their rotting bodies starts seeping out of their apartments and the neighbors call it in. Recent reports on lonely deaths in England, Japan, and South Korea highlight how this problem is sweeping across the industrialized world. It usually occurs in places where healthcare is good enough to allow longer lives, and birth rates are so low that many people don’t have children or grandchildren who check in with them on a regular basis.
This phenomenon was detailed in a New York Times article titled “Why a generation in Japan is facing a lonely death”, published on Nov 30, 2017. Besides giving frightening numbers, like 4,000 lonely deaths a week in Japan, it also follows the lives of a few people who are expecting to undergo the experience. The greatest focus was on Mrs. Chieko Ito, who just celebrated her ninety-first birthday. As a newlywed, she and her husband moved to Tokiwadaira, a massive complex of 171 nearly identical apartment buildings, built in the 1960s to accommodate the Japanese version of the Baby Boomers.
Despite having thousands of apartments, it was very hard to get in to the Tokiwadaira; strict income minimums ensured that only successful young couples could buy apartments. And within a few years of opening, all 171 buildings were teeming with life and vitality. Children frolicking in the many wading pools, husbands bustling off to work, Mrs. Ito ran a daycare in one of the buildings and it was always filled to capacity. She and her husband, an executive at an advertising agency, lived with the one daughter they shared, Chizuku, as well as one step-daughter Eriko. The apartment complex offered all sorts of events and activities for the children and their parents, and they were always well attended.
Today, the buildings contain thousands of people living alone, some only coming out a few times a month. The wading pools are abandoned and forlorn, flotsam drifting on the surface. The jungle gyms stand as a haunting icon of the life that once occupied them. Ambulances are more common than grandchildren, and there are many apartments that are sealed off, tape on all the openings, trying to block out the stench of the rotting bodies that were found in them. About half the population is over sixty-five, and most of the rest of the apartments are occupied by aging childless couples and individuals.
Mrs. Ito lost her husband and her daughter in 1992; they both died of cancer a few months apart. In the quarter-century since, she has been alone every day. She has a system worked out with a neighbor to make sure that if she dies, someone is alerted. Every night, she puts a paper screen in her window at 6pm, and in the morning, she removes it when she wakes up. She asked a neighbor who lives across from her window to check daily to make sure her screen moves, and if it doesn’t to call the police. She sends that neighbor pears and gifts in the hope that she does her that favor, although that neighbor is quite old herself, hard of hearing, and slowly losing some of her faculties, so Mrs. Ito is not even sure if she understands what she asked of her.
Once a month, the Tokiwadaira puts on a lunch for all the elderly tenants living alone, and this is the primary source of socialization for Mrs. Ito. She shares her lunch with Mr. Kinoshita, 83, a former engineer who has no family whatsoever. Mr. Kinoshita’s apartment is filthy, the floor and counters filled with garbage. There is a single pathway cleared from the bed to the bathroom. He spends most of his time in bed watching TV, and sometimes doesn’t come out of bed for a week at a time.
Mr. Kinoshita used to have a firm that provided parts for big factories, and his greatest claim to fame is that his company made a reel for a hose used by Kawasaki Heavy Industries to bore a hole under the Dover Straits when the Chunnel was built, connecting England and France. During that time, he traveled to France, and that was the highlight of his life. He still has the keychain and souvenirs he brought home from that trip, as well as the schematic drawings from the part he helped build and this is what he talks about to anyone he meets. Besides the monthly tenant lunch, his only forays into the outside world are the jazz performance he goes to once a month, and his trips to get groceries.
While the NYT article focused on Japan, recent reports echoing very similar sentiments have come out from all over the world. The UK, Finland, Austria, South Korea, France, and dozens of other countries have recently conducted studies showing a shockingly high level of loneliness in the elderly population. And the pain of loneliness is not the only problem, health problems have been associated with loneliness as well. In the US, people who described themselves as lonely were more than twice as likely to describe their health as poor. In Britain, a study came out a few years ago, showing that loneliness increases the chances of premature death by 14%. While it is not clear how, it seems that when people are alone their bodies produce less antiviral cells and a drop in white blood cell count.
When looking at the statistics on fertility in the developed world, it is not surprising that loneliness is a rising problem. For the past few decades, fertility rates have been dropping all over the industrialized world. For a society to simply replenish itself, the women in the country need to have 2.1 babies on average. But in most developed countries, the fertility is significantly below that. When people live long, and don’t have a lot of children to care for them in their old age, loneliness is going to be a problem.
It is interesting to look at the correlation between religion and fertility. Religious communities (across all religions) have significantly higher birthrates than secular ones. The lowest fertility rates in Europe are generally found in countries that are from the former Soviet Union, where religion was beat down for seventy years, such as the Czech Republic (1.5 births per woman), Poland (1.3), Bulgaria (1.5), Slovakia (1.4), Hungary (1.4), and Moldova (1.2). Extremely low fertility is also found in countries that chose to be secular and have high percentages of atheists and agnostics, countries like: Finland (1.7), Germany (1.5), Denmark (1.7), Belgium (1.7), Holland (1.7), Austria (1.8), and Italy (1.4).
There is no doubt that part of the reason that religious households have more children is that it is commanded. The Torah which is the prime text for the Jewish people, as well as the Old Testament for the Christians, counts as its first mitzvah the commandment to procreate. But it is much deeper than that. The greatest act of kindness one can do is to bring a soul into this world and care for it all of its life. Giving charity takes a few minutes, taking care of a child takes a lifetime. It takes an enormous amount of work and resources, but it is a major investment in the future. The amount of joy and fulfillment experienced by people who raised a large family later in life is impossible to describe. The many simchas they are involved in; births of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, bar-mitzvahs, birthdays, weddings, the list goes on. And their large families are constantly in touch with them, leaving loneliness by the wayside. Many of the elderly patriarchs and matriarchs of large families that I know have to carve out quiet time for themselves from time to time, because their lives are almost too full of hustle and bustle.
Religions in general call on people to be focused on others and to put away the smaller pleasures now, for greater pleasures later. More secular people tend to be more focused on their own needs and more focused on the here and now. In a study by Harvard professor Robert Putnam, it was shown that religious people are more than twice as likely to give charity than secular people, and when they give, they tend to give far higher percentages of their income. Anecdotally, I’ve heard many secular people tell me that they don’t plan on having children at all, or plan on only having one child, as they find it too taxing on the things they want to do. This is not a judgment on any individual, this is an overview of what we find in society.
But when we see secular societies all over the world combatting debilitating loneliness in their later years, it might be a time for us to open the conversation about what we do during our younger years to not just ensure that we’ll be financially secure in our later years, but also emotionally secure in our later years. Children is not the only way we can combat loneliness later on, but community involvement, volunteerism, and other acts of kindness that connect us to others. It may take a significant investment of time and resources now, but the retirement package is amazing…
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha we have a showdown of epic proportions, the ultimate clash of good vs. evil, the fight between Yaakov and the angel that represents Eisav. This angel happens to also wear the hat of the Evil Inclination. They fight all night long. They can only fight at night, as night represents the time when G-d’s light is hidden. During the day, when G-d’s light is revealed, there is no place for the angel of Eisav who represents evil. Only when we don’t see G-d clearly, when it is spiritually dark, do we have to struggle with the Evil Inclination.
Yaakov wins and the evil angel begs to be let free. He says that he needs to go sing before G-d. This can teach us a lot, as angels only go to sing before G-d when they successfully complete the mission on which they were sent. When the evil angel is defeated it is considered a success.
This concept is very different than the Christian belief that incorporates rogue angels like Lucifer who rebel against God. In Judaism we know that it is virtually impossible for an angel to rebel against G-d because they see Him with total clarity. The angel who comes to entice us to do bad is not a bad angel, he is simply fulfilling G-d’s commandment just as much as any other angel. The difference between him and the rest of the hosts of angels is that G-d commanded him to entice us to sin. However, his success is his failure.
An analogy would be the martial arts fighter sent to train the crown prince. If he just goes easy on the crown prince, then the prince will never become a great warrior. Instead he must truly fight with the prince, often giving him a stiff beating. But he yearns for the day that the prince will beat him, because that will be the day that he will have fulfilled his duty – he will have truly trained the prince to be a master.
The same is true for the Evil Inclination. If he does not try to challenge us at every opportunity he gets, then we will never become great. So he goes out each day, challenging us, beating down our spirits and driving us to places we don’t want to be. However, when we humans reject him no matter how hard he tries, his goal has been reached. So, he is the one angel out there that goes to work every day hoping to be rejected, and when he fails he can go sing to G-d because he has accomplished his purpose. Let’s try to get the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination to burst out in a continuous never-ending song of failure – success!
Our Parsha starts with Yaakov returning to his homeland after being on the run from his brother Eisav for thirty four ears. Trying to gauge the reception he should expect, Yaakov sends messengers (some say they were angels) to reconnoiter Eisav’s camp. The messengers come back with a message that Eisav has a loving brother’s reception committee of 400 crack troops chomping at the bit, intending to kill Yaakov. In response, Yaakov sets up the protocol for how Jews deal with conflicts. First he sends a gift, then he prays, and lastly he sets up the battle camps. This included splitting his family into two camps so that if one is attacked the other can escape.
The night before the meeting of the brothers Yaakov goes back across a river he crossed with his family to pick up some vessels he left behind. At this moment he is attacked by the angel of Eisav, the angel of evil. They fight all night long, and Yaakov wins. However, the angel manages to dislocate part of Yaakov’s thigh tendon, which is the reason that Jews are not allowed to eat this particular piece of meat. (It is clear that this fight has an infinite amount of depth, and the significance of the thigh tendon dislocation and the subsequent prohibition is much more profound than it appears on the surface.)
The next day Eisav meets Yaakov and, miraculously, he is filled with mercy. Instead of killing Yaakov, he cries with him, forgives him for acquiring the blessings, and blesses him. He even expresses a desire to stay with Yaakov, but Yaakov firmly refuses, and the two brothers part ways. Yaakov realized that living with a loving Eisav would be just as dangerous (if not more) than battling an angry Eisav.
After this meeting Yaakov heads to the city of Shechem where he hopes to stay a bit but, unfortunately, things don’t go so smoothly. Shechem, the son of Chamor the king of the city, is attracted to Dina, Yaakov’s daughter. He grabs her and has forced relations with her. After that, he and his father come to Yaakov to try to work out a way that Shechem can marry her properly.
Shimon and Levi, two of Yaakov’s sons and Dina’s brothers, are enraged that their sister has been defiled, and come up with a plan to teach everyone a lesson. They tell Chamor that the reason they can’t let Dina marry Shechem is because he comes from an uncircumcised people. If all the males in the city are circumcised, then Shechem can marry Dina. Shechem and his father go back and convince the people of the city to circumcise themselves. On the third day after the circumcision, when the pain is the greatest, Shimon and Levi swoop down on the city and kill all the males. (The commentators explain that they had the right to kill Shechem for his rape, but everyone else defended Chamor, and in the ensuing battle everyone was killed. Nachmonides says that the people of the city were considered accomplices to Shechem’s crime and were therefore also deserving of the death penalty.)
Yaakov is concerned about this move, as he feels it would give his family a bad name amongst all the neighboring people, and they might join forces to attack him. (Later, when he blesses his children before his death, he brings up this event again, and curses the two brother’s anger.) However, G-d puts an unnatural fear on the people of the land and no one moves against Yaakov’s family.
At this point, we learn of the death of Rivka, Yaakov’s mother. After that, G-d renames Yaakov with the same name given to him by the angel, Yisroel. He also blesses him and promises him that the land he promised to Avraham and Yitzchak will be passed on to his children (not the children of Eisav or Yishmael).
Soon after, Rachel gives birth to the last of the twelve tribes, Binyamin. Immediately after childbirth and the naming of her son, Rachel dies. She is buried right there on the road, so that when the Jews are exiled by the Babylonians hundreds of years later they can pray by her grave and she will be able to intercede on their behalf before G-d.
After Rachel dies, Yaakov establishes his primary residence in the tent of Bilhah, who had been Rachel’s maid before marrying Yaakov. Reuven, Leah’s oldest son, sees this as a slight to his mother’s honor, so he moves Yaakov’s bed into Leah’s tent. For a person of Reuven’s stature, this action is considered almost tantamount to adultery, as he is trying to force his father to live with one wife and not the other. Reuven realizes his error and does teshuvah immediately.
Toward the end of the Parsha we find Yaakov reunited with his father after an extended leave of absence and, soon after that, Yitzchak passes away at the ripe old age of 180. Eisav and Yaakov bury him together next to their mother Rivka in the Mearat Hamachpela, the place where Adam, Eve, Avraham and Sara were buried. The Parsha concludes with an in-depth description of Eisav’s genealogy. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow. ~ Frank Hummene
Random fact of the Week: The average annual income in the US at the start of a World War II was $1,070.
Funny Line of the Week: People who say they don't care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don't care what people
Have a Thankful Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham