Spirituality & the Elderly: A Jewish Perspective

How can we age like Abraham and Sarah?

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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.

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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.