In parashah Lech Lecha, Abraham is invited by God to leave his country, his homeland, the city of his birth, to travel into the unknown and begin a new nation and religion. Not so unusual – until we read that he was 75 years old at the time.
Most of us would shudder at making such a momentous move at that age; by then, we are settled and have collected enough clutter that closing up a house becomes a monumental task. And yet, Abraham is not only being asked to travel long distances, but also to begin a whole new chapter, create a whole new tribe and a whole new way of interacting in the world from a spiritual perspective.
For too many of us, any move that we make at age 75 is not so adventurous; it is usually to downsize or move into a condo so that the tasks of keeping up a house and yard are removed, or we move into an independent or assisted-living facility because we want more support than living in our own homes can provide.
But I would posit that we can look to the elderly Abraham as a role model from whom we can learn how to still connect to the world.
Abraham’s physical journey is mirrored by his spiritual journey. As he travels and begins to settle into his new homeland, his relationship with God deepens. His spiritual life expands and becomes a much more significant facet of who he is.
His spirituality is not hampered or limited by his age; in fact, being older and having lived a full life before he was ready to take on the task that God assigned him was what allowed his religious identity to take root and blossom.
As we get older, our life experiences, our psycho-emotional maturity and our willingness to grapple with the existential questions of purpose, connection and meaning allow for a fuller and richer spiritual life.
As we move into the latter stages of life, many of our experiences bring these questions to the forefront. Grief and bereavement for a loved one, whether it be a spouse or friend, can create understanding of our need for connection – thinking about the meaning of life and a spiritual outlook, or being part of a spiritual or religious community, can help alleviate a sense of loss and loneliness by bringing comfort and consolation.
Illness can also raise the same issues, and can prompt us to do a life review so that we can acknowledge and appreciate our contributions.
A life review is a spiritual practice that can only happen at the end of a life. In two weeks, we will be reading about the death of Sarah, but the parashah is titled, Chayei Sarah (the Life of Sarah), teaching us that one can only know about a person’s whole life after they have died, because up until then, there is always the possibility and opportunity for growth and contribution.
As older adults, most of us no longer work in our careers. For many of us, our identity is connected to our roles in society and, when we retire, we can lose that sense of self, of purpose and of meaning.
But, like Abraham, we can look to new vistas and opportunities to develop a different way of being in the world. We can volunteer and gain a sense of satisfaction, we can spend more time with family and friends and deepen those relationships, or we can find other ways to appreciate the world and realize that we are more than just what our job identity was. We can explore new hobbies and take on adventures that we did not have time for during our younger years because of our job responsibilities.
All of us are spiritual. For some, that is exhibited through a connection with a religious community and God; for others, our spiritual selves are nourished through a sense of wholeness and connection to nature, to music, to each other.
Each of us, as human beings, will find our own path through life that helps to bring a sense of belonging, fulfillment and purpose. As we age, even as our physical selves might become more limited, our spiritual lives can become richer as long as we are open to the possibilities and engage with the world in an honest and spiritual way.
May we always be willing to be open to the fullness of all that life can teach us, as a result of both the negative and the positive. And may we be open to the wisdom that our life experiences can teach us so that we live spiritually rich lives, no matter our age.
RABBI ANDREA M. GOUZE is the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Emunah in Stoughton, Massachusetts, and is the director of Spiritual Care at New England Sinai Hospital.