Sacred Aging

Contributed by Howard Silverman, MD MS

The last session of the “Aging to Saging” workshop was winding down when I asked whether any participants would be interested in organizing future activities. Across the room, I could see my mother trying vainly to pull my father’s raised arm down. I had never really seen my dad volunteer so enthusiastically for committee work and wondered what the source of his enthusiasm was.

This seminar, facilitated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was an early “R&D” effort focused on developing processes to help older people transform into Elders[1]. Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi’s premise is that one becomes an elder only after going through a ‘harvesting’ process. This process, pursued in the context of community, utilizes life review and a variety of other activities discover deeper patterns and significance to the events of one’s life. For example, a failed relationship might have been viewed with regret but in a bigger frame may have been the doorway to growth and transformation. For many, re-examining one’s life events in this fashion yielded the growth of a greater wisdom. Manifesting this wisdom in the context of ongoing communal discussion and education was what it was to become an elder.

Rabbi William Berk
Rabbi William Berk

This local group of to-be-elders started meeting on a regular basis. They engaged the Phoenix Bureau of Jewish Education to start a course of study of Pirke Avot which took four years to complete. They also began participating in a two year journaling seminar[2] offered by Rabbi Berk at Temple Chai. A series of progressive writing topics was covered and participants were encouraged, although not required, to share their writings. At the end of these activities, the participants conducted a consecration ceremony for incoming first-grade children which was then followed by a beautiful ceremony whereby the congregation consecrated them into the Temple Chai Elder Havurah.

I attended an Elder Havurah planning meeting which was coincidentally held on the day the First Gulf War began. I found that event very unsettling – I had grown up during the Viet Nam era, but had never experienced the onset of a shooting war. I expressed my uneasiness to them and they started telling tales of how they felt when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred. It was surprisingly reassuring to be among people who had experienced war and more and survived. During the early years of forming the Shalom Center at Temple Chai, we went to the Elder Havurah for their advice and blessing. They listened deeply and offered wonderful advice followed by a very sweet blessing.

At the same time, I noticed a subtle change in my father which continued to deepen and mature over time. He started taking additional study classes and became a core member of the Elder Havurah. While in the past he was often predictable in his responses, he now listened much more deeply and often shared a teaching or insight based on his experience as a response.

My father died suddenly yet peacefully early one morning. After my mother and I had managed to take care of the immediate issues planning for the funeral, she mentioned he had left something which I would find interesting. From the bookshelf, she pulled a small journal perhaps 30 pages in all. It was my father’s journal composed during the journal seminar run by Rabbi Berk. In his original and unique handwriting, he wrote eloquently about his experiences, beliefs and core values. It was as if a window opened on his soul. My mother then produced two pages of loose leaf paper written in his hand on which he had written and edited another document. She explained that he had just finished his final edits and was about to enter it into his journal as the last entry. The title was “Ethical Will of Dave Silverman” and it was his last message to all of us. To be able to read, share and re-read my father’s Elder journal and Ethical Will was both moving and comforting, especially the final paragraph of his Ethical Will which reads:

By the time you read this ethical will, I no longer will be with you physically. I will have departed this earth as have all the generations before me. I don’t think I should be continually mourned, since this is God’s plan and departing physically is His destiny for all of us. I would be happy if I would be remembered by you and the future generations of our family rather than being continuously mourned. Hoping where I’ll be will give me that position of being able to look down on all of you from the life hereafter. I am sure I will be able to see you and my descendents, smile and beam about all of you who remain on this earth.

[1] From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller; Warner Books (1995).

[2] Guiding Autobiography Groups for Older Adults by James E. Birren and Donna E. Deutchman; The Johns Hopkins University Press (1991).

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