When organizing the Torah and deciding how it should be structured, the rabbis divided the Torah into weekly parshiot (portions) and titled each portion with the first one or two important words that began that section. The names are not like chapter headings that we find in secular books, and very often do not have any connection to the main events, themes or narrative that occurs within that particular section.
This week’s Torah parashah, Hayyei Sarah, is a quintessential example of this. The translation of Hayyei Sarah is “Sarah’s Life,” but the very first verses describe her death, and then the narrative focuses on Abraham purchasing land in order to bury his wife, then instructing Eliezer, his servant, to journey back to Nahor to find a wife for Isaac.
While the narrative does not talk about Sarah’s life, the rabbis, ever attuned to use all anomalies as teaching moments, used this discrepancy of a title, totally disconnected to the events found within, to teach an important lesson. For them, the name of the parashah is a lesson for us that we cannot sum up a person’s life, or even view it as complete, until the person has passed away.
The lessons inherent in this perspective are many. It teaches us that, as humans, we always have the capacity to continue learning, growing and contributing, up to the very day that we die. It also teaches that even though someone might be old, their lives are not complete; we need to respect them and provide opportunities for them to still be vital and integral members of society.
Some examples of individuals who have made contributions to society at an older age: Grandma Moses first began painting at the age of 78. Abraham Nathanson created the popular game Bananagrams at the age of 76. Bernie Sanders was a presidential candidate at age 75. Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the series “Little House on the Prairie,” did not write her first book until she was 64. Benjamin Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence when he was 70. In 1994, when he was almost 76, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the country’s first election that was open to all races. All of these individuals did not let popular beliefs deter them from being active members of society and following their dreams and passions. For them, their chronological age was not the determining factor in what they could still accomplish or in what ways they still had the ability to contribute to society.
I find fascinating the number of creative accomplishments that have been made by people who are over the age of 70.
While we might physically slow down, we have the ability to develop our creative and spiritual sides to a much greater degree than when we are younger. This is partially a result of the fact that we are no longer focused on being successful or working at a job in order to provide for ourselves and our family. After retirement, we have the freedom and the ability to develop those aspects of our personalities that have been dormant for much of our lives. As can be seen from the above examples, people have capitalized upon this and have created much that has enhanced and enriched our civilization.
Older individuals have much to offer in terms of life experience, spiritual growth and intellectual knowledge. We do them, as well as our society as a whole, a disservice when we do not acknowledge the wealth of information, wisdom and perspective that older adults can bring to the table. Unfortunately, American society focuses a lot on how to stay younger; whole industries are devoted to keeping the aging process at bay, be it the cosmetic industry, the health and gym industry or the food industry. Instead of embracing the positives that come with aging, we view it with trepidation and fear. We feed into stereotypes that are not accurate or truthful.
I was at a retreat last week where a young educator was putting on a skit in which she was playing a grandmotherly figure. She decided to portray this individual by slowly walking in a stooped manner and talking like she had marbles in her mouth. The audience of fifth and sixth graders was exposed to an image that does not reflect the reality of how people are aging today and this, unfortunately, skewed their perception of what to expect when they grow older. These stereotypes just help to foster the fear of aging, and perpetuate the cycle of our culture focusing on the young and dismissing the old.
The Torah places the ages of Abraham and Sarah at 90 when they first begin their journey to Canaan, traveling to a new and foreign land. I have often wondered if one of the lessons that it was trying to teach was exactly this idea that we should not make assumptions or presumptions about someone’s ability to achieve something just because that person is older.
We are living longer and healthier lives. We need to shift our perceptions as a society in order to stop viewing the elderly as individuals who have “put in their time” and should now fade into the sunset. Instead, we should look to them as a resource and a repository of knowledge and expertise that has been gained through a lifetime of achievements, responsibilities and learning. By shifting our cultural perceptions of the elderly from the negative to the positive, we will not only empower them and give them the dignity they deserve, we will enrich our society, by incorporating their life lessons into our daily lives and routines.
Rabbi Andrea M. Gouze is currently the part-time rabbi of Temple Beth Emunah of Brockton, Ma. as well as the Director of Pastoral Care at the New England Sinai Hospital in Stoughton, Ma. She also teaches Jewish studies to the 5th grade students at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island.