Spirituality & the Elderly: A Jewish Perspective
How can we age like Abraham and Sarah?
With people generally living longer lives today than in the past, many have sought to articulate a unique spirituality for those facing the questions, challenges, and joys that come with old age. In the following piece, the author discusses how we might think of a Jewish spirituality of aging.
In Genesis (25:8), we learn that the patriarch Abraham died at age 175, having reached a "good ripe age, old and contented." In Deuteronomy (34:7-8), we learn that Moses died at the age of 120, with eyes "undimmed and vigor unabated." Both men set out on their transformative journeys at older ages. Abraham was 75 when he left Haran. Moses was 80 when he led the Israelites out of Egypt.
There are many references to the decline and challenges of growing old in Jewish texts, but these references clearly teach us that there is good in old age, that there is health and strength. Do these texts point to a spirituality of Jewish aging? Can growing older be a time when we do not end our journeys, but begin them? And if we do, what is the journey that allows us to obtain a good old age, to retain vitality?
Embarking on the Journey
When we speak or write of spirituality, the word itself evokes many shades of meaning. Ask a group of people what the word means to them, and you will receive many different answers. For some, spirituality means connection to God. For others, the word implies a connection to some force greater than themselves, the universe, nature.
An essence that underlies the many definitions is the sense of connection that goes beyond one's sense of self. For Jews, this sense may be captured in Abraham Heschel's well-known phrase, "radical amazement." To look at the world in this manner, is to have a spiritual experience. The deeper context of Heschel's phrase implies the covenantal relationship between God and humankind. Our awe is rooted in a sacred connection.
Both Abraham and Moses hear God's call. Abraham is told, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1). Moses stops to regard the wondrous sight of the burning bush (Exodus 3:3) and hears God's call, "Moses, Moses," answering , "Here I am."
Our ancestors begin their journeys as older men, older men to whom God speaks differently. Abraham hears God tell him to go forth. Moses hears God calling his name. In beginning a spiritual journey at an older age, both Abraham and Moses have accumulated multiple life experiences. They have passed through childhood and adolescence. They have worked and married. They have been part of a community and family. Both men hear God's commanding voice.