I have to admit that this verse, which we read in the Torah tomorrow, is not one I have thought about in depth: ‘Arpachshad lived for four hundred and three years after fathering Shelach’. But imagine one transposed it into today’s context of a society worrying about the fact that people live longer and how we lack the resources to care properly for our elderly.
We held a moving discussion on that subject yesterday. The focus was what different faiths had to teach about the relationship between young and old. This led into a presentation of the most creative ways in which different care groups and communities are responding. The evening was organised, with our input, by North London Citizens, and hosted by us. I know there are some who have considered reservations about aspects of this organisation’s work, but, to me, and many others, yesterday expressed why we made the personal decision to be involved. To listen to a teenage Muslim girl say, ‘This is the first time I’m helping chair an event and I never thought it would happen in a synagogue’; to hear a pupil from the al-Khoei school describe teachings from the Koran about honouring old age; to sit at a table with Christian women comparing what they saw in Africa about the bonds within families to what they see here; then to learn about best practice from both Jewish Care and the Beth Johnson Foundation, – this in itself felt like a form of Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name. As someone said at the end, ‘Something holy happened here tonight’.
For me, the evening contained three especially humbling moments. The first was hearing a woman say, ‘Actually, I’m a lawyer by profession. But I’ve worked in care for twelve years. I didn’t choose this path at first. ‘God, what am I doing here?’ I asked myself. But then I just knew the answer, and I’m passionate about my work.’ The second was to listen to the extraordinary vision behind Jewish Care and ask myself whether we support their work enough, or leave responsibilities to others. The third was to hear two ladies who work in home-help and who love the people they care for describe a day’s work: long hours; long journeys from one person they look after to another; how they often can’t accept a cup of tea because they have to be off to catch more buses; how they are neither paid their fares nor travel time, so that they take home in a week less than many earn in a day… And yet we desperately need these big-hearted people.
Outcomes? More than people want to be cared for, people of all ages want to give, to be a contributing part of inter-generational society and to find intellectual and emotional stimulation through being involved in community. There’s more we can all do here.
But there were other outcomes too: the sense of shared values between Christian, Muslim and Jew, the stirring insights into the worlds of others, the consciousness that God’s house embraces us all, the determination to work together so that our shared society cares better for those who care.