Spirituality & the Elderly: A Jewish Perspective

How can we age like Abraham and Sarah?

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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.