Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

November 20, 2011

Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah -What Our Elderly Can Teach Us

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 4:34 am
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The life of Sarah was a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years, years of the life of Sarah.

Why does the Torah split up the tally of her years into three parts (“one hundred years,” “twenty years” and “seven years”)? The Midrash HaGadol says it is to tell us that every day of her life was the equivalent of them all. At the age of one hundred years she was like age twenty in strength, and at age twenty she was like age seven in modesty and purity; at age seven she was like age twenty in intelligence, and at age twenty she was like age one hundred in righteousness.

But while in this week’s Torah reading, we hear of the end of life for Sarah, and also that of Abraham, and in the reading from the Prophets (Haftorah) the end of King David’s life, it is clear that the summary of the life of a person doesn’t end with the years they live.  In the Torah reading, we move directly from Sarah’s burial, to the finding of a wife for Issac – the person who will continue Sarah’s tradition.  In the haftorah, from the end of King David’s day to his succession by Shlomo HaMelech.  I would like to suggest that this is not accidental – that every good life stretches beyond its years – and that we must focus both on the legacy we leave with each of our days, and give as much energy and attention to being receptive to the gifts granted us by those who came before us.

The transition and transmission from senior generations to junior is usually thought of as a one directional arrow – the elderly hand over the reins to the younger leadership.  I believe the lesson of this week’s Torah reading is that the connection between older and younger generations is actually best seen and lived as an endless loop – with the giving and receiving shifting across the generations – and when done well, everyone benefits, learns and grows.

Let’s look first at the classic notion of transmission – the view that by virtue of age and experience those senior to us have much to offer, a view well understood and supported in Torah.  In Torah, yes, but in our modern world, this is challenging, given that we live in a culture that prizes youth and newness over wrinkles and history.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his essay on retirement wrote:

Thus society dictates that one’s later years be marked by inactivity and decline. The aged are made to feel that they are useless, if not a burden, and had best confine themselves to retirement villages and nursing homes. After decades of achievement, their knowledge and talent are suddenly worthless; after decades of contributing to society, they are suddenly undeserving recipients, grateful for every time the younger generation takes off from work and play to drop by for a half-hour chat and the requisite Fathers’ Day necktie.

A pretty bleak picture, and considering this description, it is no surprise that the incidence of depression is rather high among the elderly.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Chief Rabbi of England, presents a Torah view of old age and “retirement” very differently – suggesting each of us have a sacred mission and a gift for those who come after us.    We read in Breishit of God saying about Abraham

“For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just,” (Gen. 18: 19).

Rabbi Sacks explains, that when you ensure that your children will continue to live for what you have lived, it becomes less important whether you finish your journey – you can have faith that your descendents will eventually reach the desired destination. Abraham, Rabbi Sacks argues, did not need to see all Israel in Jewish hands, or personally experience the Jewish people as numerous as the stars. Confident in the steps he had taken, and with total faith in his successors, and in God, he trusted that others would complete what he had begun.   Rabbi Sacks describes a recipe for a happy old age beautifully when he states:

“To place your life in God’s hands, to have faith that whatever happens to you happens for a reason, to know that you are part of a larger narrative, and to believe that others will continue what you began, is to achieve a satisfaction in life that cannot be destroyed by circumstance. Abraham and Sarah had that faith, and they were able to die with a sense of fulfillment. “

In fact, research on older individuals validates that faith, having felt a sense of purpose, and a recognition of their legacy, no matter how simple or small, seems critical in promoting resilience, and staving off both physical illness and depression.

As rich as this notion of the older generation transmitting and transferring, through its experience and teaching, its mission to the younger generation, the following well known parable – told by Rabbi Naftali Reich, from Ohr Sameach suggests how often the contributions of our senior community are under-recognized and also highlights the limits of this unidirectional view.

A beachcomber goes down to the beach early in the morning with an empty sack.  He spends hours exploring the sand and the seaweed, finding beautiful shells and unusual rocks to fill his sack.  In the process, he has become red, exhausted and covered in sand, and his now heavy sack weighs him down, giving him a stooped posture.    At dusk, another beachcomber arrives, looking fresh.  He sees the first beachcomber and taunts him – look at you, you’re a wreck.  I bet you wish you were me right now.  Not at all,  the reddened and tired first man answers – if I were you, I would have an empty sack, and none of the treasures I’ve collected.  The fresh beachcomber sneered
and walked away.

While Rabbi Reich presents this story to underscore the wonderful treasures the elderly have collected, which are not always appreciated, I would like to suggest an alternate ending.  Of course, I would like our fresh beachcomber to sit on the sand with his experienced counterpart, and have him share his treasures, listening to the rich stories behind each special object. I have no doubt it would enrich the listener.  But more importantly, I would like our whippersnapper beachcomber to offer the wrinkled, exhausted veteran a cold drink, to offer to carry his sack for a bit, to see what would be helpful and appreciated by the beachcomber who preceded him.  This is a critical component of the transmission and transition from one generation to another – not just what the younger generation passively receives, but how they respond, and what they offer to their elders – which will forever impact their lives going forward.

We were blessed, in our neighborhood, to have two families we were close to, our neighbor and across the street neighbor, both invite aging and infirm parents into their homes at the end of their lives.  We were privileged to watch the children in those families adjust and adapt to sharing their space, their time and their homes with grandparents.  We spoke often to the parents, who although they certainly struggled and mourned at watching their parents lose function, and ultimately lose their battle with illness – never once regretted exposing their children to it – because their children learned so much about chesed (acts of kindness) in those months, in lessons that will stay with them for life.

On an even more personal note, this summer, the challenges and gifts of our seniors became crystal clear.  At our son’s wedding, we were thrilled to have my parents able to join us – my father had recently been hospitalized, and was in a wheelchair.  We knew to arrange who would take him down the aisle, how to be sure he could participate.  Then came the dancing.  Several times I asked  if he wanted to join the circle, and he repeatedly refused – no, I’m fine, he said.  Towards the end of the evening, my wonderful machuten grabbed my dad’s wheelchair and schlepped him into the circle.  Immediately all his grandchildren took his hand and danced with him.  My mechuten later told me that he did that because he suffered an injury and had been in a wheelchair, and knew what it felt like to want to be included.  After the wedding my father said he had never felt more loved and respected by his grandchildren than he did at that moment – he just felt bad that it was so much work for everyone, my husband and I and my siblings to have him at the wedding.  I hope I convinced him that his presence was critical, not just because it would not have been a simcha without him, but because it allowed us to teach our children such powerful lessons – ones that, thankfully, according to him, they are learning well.

So, as we read the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, I think we should consider that the greatest gift the senior generation gives us is not the sum total of their experiences, it is not the parables and paradigms of their lives, no matter  how well lived.  I believe the greatest gift the senior generation gives us is the opportunity for us to live the midot (characteristics), personally and as teachers to our children and the generations after us, that they have instilled in us. We are blessed with the opportunity to become better listeners, we are gifted with the chance to demonstrate Kibud,(respect and honor) we write in capital letters our Emunah (faithe) as we share their illnesses and losses, and we express our unflappable belief that every individual, whether they are able of body and mind, or struggling with memory loss, physical limits, or emotional strain, is and always will be b’Zelem Elokim, a creation in G-d’s image.

Chayei Sara – not the life, but the lives of Sarah,  perhaps they are multiple lives not only because of Sarah’s great gifts to the world, but also because  of the gifts those around her, were blessed to give.

Rabbi Sacks, quoting the Gemara s- “The righteous, even in death, are regarded as though they were still alive” (Berakhot 18a)  suggests Sarah leaves a living trace even after she is gone.  Sarah’s heritage of chesed is evident in Abraham’s respectful and loving burial of her. Issac marries a woman who embodies Sarah’s midot.  Her husband and son carry Sarah’s trace forward, and become the great people they are destined to be through the honor they give her.

This is the never ending loop, the unbroken chain of our heritage – prior generations share with us their experience, we give back, we care for them with kibud and chesed, and we, in turn, are infinitely enriched. May we all be worthy to receive the gifts our seniors offer us, and to become, through our interactions with them, the extraordinary people our heritage destines us to be.

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