Spirituality & the Elderly: A Jewish Perspective

How can we age like Abraham and Sarah?

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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.

aging in judaismThere 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.

Being older, is Abraham more open to and willing to set forth on a radically new path? Being older, is Moses more sensitive, has he become quieter within himself that he can stop and look and hear? Does reaching an older age bring with it a unique ability to explore spirituality?

Commanded Not to Feel Old

There is a phrase attributed to the Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov, or perhaps it is a variation on a theme: Jews are forbidden to feel old. It takes courage to face the limits of life, and the losses that invariably come with it. But if Reb Nachman forbids Jews to feel old, then he is using the commanding language of Sinai. This is not an option, but a must.

Abraham and Moses challenge common notions of growing old. Contrary to coming of age as young men, they come of age as old men. Abraham dies content; Moses dies with eyes undimmed, with the ability to see and understand things clearly, and with vigor, with vitality. By following God's call, both men have gone beyond the limits of their expected routines. They are able to venture into the unknown. They become leaders, transforming themselves and others in the process.

As one grows older, our tradition offers this model. While being in a covenantal relationship with God is what makes us Jewish from birth or the moment of conversion--a relationship reaffirmed at the time of a bar or bat mitzvah--the possibilities of reaffirming this relationship again, of perhaps hearing the call in a new way when we grow old, presents an opportunity for spiritual transformation. The spiritual transformation offers strength and vigor that go beyond the purely physical, and may have little to do with our physical states. As we grow closer to the limits of life, there is work to do for ourselves that will benefit the next generation.

Honoring Our Elders

In Berakhot, a book of the Talmud, there is a tractate that deals with the question: How far does the honor of parents extend? In this tractate, comes a story of Dama the heathen (Baba Metzia 58b). There are two brief versions in which Dama is offered a large sum of money from representative Sages of the Jewish community, first for "merchandise," and secondly, for "jewels for the ephod," a special priestly breastplate.

In order to make the deal, Dama must awaken his father, for the key is lying beneath his father's pillow. This Dama refuses to do. Disturbing his father's rest is unacceptable; he places a higher value on honoring his father than on financial profit. Later on in the story, Dama is rewarded by God. A red heifer is born to his flock. Such a heifer is rare and necessary for the priests of the holy Temple for purification purposes.

The tractate ends with an ethical precept articulated by Rabbi Hanina. To our modern ears, the climax is surprising and counterintuitive. The story is not about a heathen whose treatment of his old father is exemplary, exemplary enough to be rewarded by God. The story is teaching us how to fulfill this obligation. The Rabbi tells us that great honor is due an elder, while emphasizing that if one who is not commanded to follow the law is rewarded, how much greater the reward for following the law? For following the law means that we have answered a call and are in a sacred relationship.

Connecting to the Limitless

In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, there is no old age (Genesis 3). Limits are restricted to only one rule: not to eat of the fruit of two trees. Death is introduced as Adam and Eve come to toil outside the Garden, but there is no old age. Old age is first introduced when we meet Abraham, who dies "a good old age." Abraham has responded to the commanding voice of God. His life becomes the journey with which we are all familiar: "Go forth," "Go by yourself," Go for yourself," "Go to yourself." All of these interpretations are part of our tradition.

If spirituality claims a universal aspect of being human, an intuitive sense that we are not alone in the universe, then Jewish spirituality takes that sense and particularizes it. We are not alone because we are choosing to be in relationship to the God of Abraham. We are choosing to accept the commanding voice. But we first must be willing to hear the call, to hear the challenge. There are few older adults who do not recognize the challenges that come as we age.

When we hear the call and reaffirm the covenant, we are accepting limits. At the same time we connect to what is limitless, for God has no boundaries. As we grow older, we may be uniquely able to feel this truth. We may experience increasing awareness of limits, in diminished physical capacity, and in the knowledge that our own lives will end. And yet, on a spiritual level, what we are capable of understanding transcends the physical experience.

In the Torah, there are no accidents. It is no accident that the first to follow the commanding voice is Abraham, an elder. Our first elder does not live in retirement, but rather begins a journey and continues to grow, learn, and achieve. The individual Abraham is blessed. His blessing is to become the father of a great nation, to grow from individual to community, a community bound to God. Our first elder is our first role model for growing older. Therefore, Reb Nachman can tell us that we are forbidden to feel old, even if we are old in years.

Moses is willing to stop and see the miracle of the burning bush. Even willing to look, he must hear his name called twice before he answers, for the call is a demanding one that signals change. But Moses' answer is clear: Hineni, I am here. His blessing is to lead the Jewish people out of slavery into freedom. This elder does not remain a shepherd, but also continues to grow, learn, and achieve.

Older adult spirituality has a unique place in Jewish tradition. Older ears may be distinctly able to hear and follow the commandment to continue going forth. We must be wise enough to reach a good old age by traveling new paths for ourselves and for those who will follow us. By choosing to be commanded, we are choosing a sacred relationship. We are taught that the reward is great.

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Jacquelyn Dwoskin is a Professor and Project Specialist in Gerontology at Nova Southeastern University Fischler School of Education and Human Services.