The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - RABBI JOSH LEVY

“I will in­scribe on the tablets the com­mand­ments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall de­posit them in the ark”

WITH av­er­age life ex­pectancy dur­ing the bib­li­cal pe­riod of around 30 years, it is un­sur­pris­ing that the Bi­ble seems un­aware of the chal­lenges pre­sented by de­men­tia. Bib­li­cal char­ac­ters reach old age with their fac­ul­ties undi­min­ished; the bib­li­cal au­thors had lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence of pro­gres­sive cog­ni­tive de­gen­er­a­tion.

By the time of the Tal­mud, though, de­men­tia, or at least its symp­toms, was part of their ex­pe­ri­ence. In­deed, for the sages, whose cul­ture was so fo­cused on learn­ing and in­tel­lect, the im­pact of mem­ory loss and prob­lems of rea­son­ing was felt es­pe­cially acutely.

But what tex­tual source would al­low them to dis­cuss the prob­lem? Our por­tion con­tains the an­swer, the defin­ing text for treat­ment of de­men­tia suf­fer­ers in rab­binic tra­di­tion. The rabbis com­pare the hon­our due to schol­ars who have lost their learn­ing to the first set of tablets smashed by Moses. Just as these, bro­ken and un­read­able, were placed in the Tabernacle along with the sec­ond set of tablets, so, too, those who have for­got­ten their learn­ing must be treated with re­spect. Just as the first tablets re­tained their sanc­tity, so do those who lose their rea­son­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Peo­ple, like texts, are sa­cred sources of learn­ing and knowl­edge. Like the break­ing of a tablet, de­men­tia steals the in­tel­lec­tual gift, but does not take away the sa­cred essence. Rabbi Nor­man Lamm, in his eu­logy for Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, de­scribed the painful loss of learn­ing that comes with de­men­tia: “Some­times,” he wrote, “we know of a To­rah scroll which was burnt... At other times, a To­rah scroll does not have the for­tune of such a dra­matic end... in­stead, it is a To­rah scroll which wears out… as let­ter by let­ter is pain­fully wrenched away from it, un­til it is no more.”

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