The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Did Sarah suffer from senile dementia?

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1.  The Rabbis tell us that the Matriarch Sarah – Soroh Imeinu – died the “kiss-like” death reserved for the completely righteous, where they slip almost imperceptibly from one world into the next.

2.  But what was she like before her death?  Did she go to sleep one night in possession of all her faculties and pass tranquilly to the next world in her sleep?  Or did the transition take place over a longer period, and was it accompanied by a gradual loss of the intellectual faculties that tie us to this world as much as the more tangible part of the corporeal side of our personality?  Did she gradually slip more and more “into her own world”, with less and less ability to connect with and understand this one, until she finally slipped altogether into the next?

3.  Doctors tell us that dementia is becoming more common.  This may be a function of the increased stress under which we live.  Or it may reflect the improved ability of medical science to keep our bodies going longer.  Probably it is a combination of many factors.  But whatever its cause, it is a condition with which more and more people come to terms.

4.  In an old age home somewhere in London lives a man, whose age would once have been thought advanced but is now nothing remarkable.  Ten years ago, he was reknowned for his piety and his intellect.  His learning was considered by those entitled to an opinion to rank him as one of the foremost Talmudic and rabbinic scholars in the world.

5.  Now he sits in his old age home, often unsure what is going on around him, unable to remember many things that one needs to remember in order to function effectively in this world and to look after oneself.  And I sometimes hear people mention him and add something like “isn’t it a shame, when one thinks what he was?”

6.  Depending on precisely what they mean, they are either right or terribly wrong.  When a wise and active scholar ceases to be able to use his or her brain in the way they once could, it is indeed a shame – but for us, not for them.  We lose the benefit of their wisdom and intellect, which was once such an important Divine blessing for us.  We would have lost it, of course, had they simply died: but it is more frustrating for us this way, seeing their faculties wane gradually, and seeing them alive and well physically but no longer able to give us the help and guidance that we so desperately need and at which they once excelled.  And if it is frustrating for us, how terrible must it be for those close to them emotionally – their relatives and close friends.

7.  Of course, though, we must try to control our grief in the same way we do when a person simply dies.  The Rabbis explain the small letter used in the word describing Abraham’s grief when Sarah died by the fact that not too many tears were needed to be shed for her, since her life had been sucn an unalloyed blessing to her and those around her, so that joy and not grief was the more durable emotion to be associated with her forever.  That is true of a person whose contribution has been great, whether it is brought to an end suddenly by death or gradually by disease.

8.  And if by “what a shame!” is meant “what a shame for them”, it misses the point completely.  The man I speak of was once a great soul and a great mind.  His mind is no longer great, but his soul shines out all the more brightly for that.  We are not normally privileged to see the purity of a soul while it is still bound to this world: on rare occasions we are privileged to see what decades’ dedicated practice of the Torah can make of a person’s moral and spiritual instincts – so that long after they are able to control much of their behaviour by the intellect the ingrained characteristics of love, gratitude and concern (all Divine attributes) shine out of them and make them a source of wonder and inspiration to all who see them.

9.  We too easily mistake the mind for the soul.  A person may be a brilliant intellect, a charismatic, dynamic speaker, a charming personality, and spiritually inert.  Brilliant Talmudic dialectic is a thing of this world, not the next: it can be used to guard and develop a person’s soul so that when the intellect fails the soul shines out in all its original purity – but in itself it is spiritually neutral.

10.  Of course, dementia brings moments of mental pain, anguish and confusion; just like other physical diseases.  And when we see them we feel a sympathetic distress.  But, again, that may sometimes be our problem, not the person’s.  If a friend who once knew me well no longer recognises me, that upsets me – but I must not make the mistake of thinking that it necessarily upsets him or her; or that it is their problem rather than mine.

11.  Thinking of the increasing incidence of dementia makes me want to pray.  Not “Dear God, please don’t let me suffer from dementia before I die”.  But rather something a little more confused along the following lines: “Dear God, please help me to use the mental faculties I have while I can still control them, so that when I stop being able to control them, whether that happens before I die or when I die, they have done their bit to make the real me – the soul and not the brain – something that you and I can rejoice in; and, please, if I am to go through a period of inability to control my mind before I die, help me to use it in the meantime to put the “real me”, whatever that is, into sufficient shape to ensure that those wh0 are close to me do not have to suffer the pain of being ashamed of me”.


Written by Daniel Greenberg

January 14, 2009 at 9:24 am

One Response

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  1. I think that this post does not take into account the different effects experienced by sufferers of dementia: in many cases the person appears to undergo a complete change of personality, becoming angry, aggressive, or very distressed and fearful, and I don’t believe that in every case this can be said to be the person’s true nature revealing itself. Nor does it take into account the (often long and distressing) period during which the sufferer is aware that he or she is gradually losing mental functions and that matters will only get worse.

    I don’t think that it is unreasonable for a religious person to pray to be spared dementia before death.It is said that John Wesley, when asked what he would do if he were told that the Day of Judgement was to be the next day, said that he would do exactly what he would otherwise have planned to do that day. We should all be aiming to be able to say the same thing, and dementia is to be feared because it robs us of the opportunity to put our lives and souls into such a state that we could say it.


    January 15, 2009 at 4:03 pm

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