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 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.”