An aroma all but absent these days but deeply evocative of childhood to many of us who grew up before pollution laws is the bouquet of burning leaves. Back in the day, we would rake the dry debris of autumn into a pile, or put it into a metal trash can (remember those?) and set the leaves aflame. The resultant smoke, at least at somewhat of a distance, was a seasonal perfume, an olfactory hint that the snow days weren’t far off.
Today we put what we’ve raked into very large double-reinforced paper “lawn bags” and leave them for the recycling pickup. (I don’t imagine they put the leaves back on trees, but surely something worthwhile is done with them.)
A few weeks ago, while I was doing the final leaf-raking of the year, the lawn bag I was filling provided me some timely spiritual direction.
I needed the chizuk, and for a reason not unrelated to how distant a memory the scent of burning leaves is, to how many years have elapsed since it would regularly waft through the autumn air.
Having several months ago passed the 60-year life-mark (the “new 40,” as I prefer to imagine it), I find myself among the population I casually regarded for so much of my life as “old.” I still like to think of myself as a young adult, and am always happy when, at a simchah, I’m seated with people much younger than I. I prefer to converse about the sort of things un-old people talk about, not my contemporaries’ various aches, pains and medical conditions. (Though, of course, if anyone demonstrates the slightest interest, I am happy to share details of my own.)
One danger of passing the half-century mark and then some is the enticing thought that it’s time to “settle down” and rest on one’s laurels — or, if one doesn’t really have any laurels, to rest at least on one’s easy chair. That is to say, to imagine that the season of personal growth and development is in one’s past, and that the present and the future are limited to “maintenance,” not only of our physical health but our spiritual states as well. The baalei mussar, however, famously warn us that there’s no spiritual standing still in life, no neutral gear as we climb the hill of our personal histories. Take your figurative foot off the accelerator, they caution, and be prepared to drift downward.
A Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 1:3) speaks of the various stages of life, comparing a baby to a king and an aged person to a monkey. Every parent understands the royalty comparison — we wait on our newborns, happily but often exhaustedly, hand and foot; high chairs are thrones and the will of the little one (in most cases) must be done.
What’s with the monkey, though? Explains the Kotzker, zt”l: An ape… apes. That is to say, he imitates what he sees. Visit a zoo and engage one of the simian prisoners. Slowly raise your hand; as likely as not, he’ll do the same. Lift your leg; he’ll follow suit.
When people grow old, explains the Kotzker, they all too often come to just imitate… themselves, or, better, their younger versions. They just keep on keeping on, with their lives mere mirror reflections of their earlier days. They daven the same, they study Torah the same, they observe Shabbos and Yom Tov the same, they interact with others the same way.
Whereas once, in youth, striving for higher levels of sensitivity to tefillah, Torah, Shabbos, Yom Tov and interpersonal relations was a given. As we grow older, unfortunately, it is all too often a forgotten. Yet, we do well to recognize that “ohd yenuvun biseivah” isn’t just a brachah; it’s a mandate.
It’s not easy to maintain growth after a few decades of adult life. Like objects moving closer to the speed of light, where the faster they go, the more energy they need to increase speed, it takes greater effort as we age to avoid complacency, to not become lazy about life.
Such thoughts were bouncing around in the back of my head as I raked the leaves. And then I noticed the apparent motto of the “home-improvement center” where I had purchased my lawn bags, inscribed in large letters on the side of the bag. It seemed to be speaking to me; halevai I should take it to heart.
It read: “Never Stop Improving.”