Sprituality and Aging – Commentary from Rabbi Lawrence Kotok

In beginning – I was asked this past year to participate in planning a conference on seniors and spirituality and then to offer the keynote address. Today I would like to share with you some of the thoughts I offered that may help us understand and engage this concept.

There are three stories that will frame our discussion today – the first the familiar words of Rabbi Alvin Fine – that for me sets the issue for us all:

Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
but life is a journey. A going, a growing from stage to stage: from childhood to maturity and youth to old age.

From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;
from foolishness to discretion and then perhaps, to wisdom. From weakness to strength or strength to weakness and often back again. From health to sickness and back we pray, to health again.

From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,
from joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion.
From grief to understanding, from fear to faith;
from defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead: we see that victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.

Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
but life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage,
made stage by stage…to life everlasting.

Rabbi Lawrence Kotok
Rabbi Lawrence Kotok

The second is from Mitch Albom’s book – Have a Little Faith: A True Story: my insertions: “a minister, a rabbi, a priest, or an iman began their sermon with a stirring reminder: everyone in this congregation is going to die!

The clergyman looked around. He noticed a man in the front pew smiling. “Why are you so amused?” he asked.

“I’m not from this congregation,” the man said, “I’m just visiting my sister for the weekend.”

The third: the most personal – a story from my own life. When my father died when I was 26 – we found a piece of paper in his wallet upon which he had written, “human beings are born with two terminal illnesses –one is hope-the other is life itself. The one tries to make us believe the other isn’t reality.”

There you have it – the tension between reality and human frailty – hope and age -so my friends the balance between life and death is a moving target impacting all of us more or less –depending where you are on the road- on the bar graph of life –all of us run the spectrum. Each of us form our own reality between the choices.

Remember these words, as we consider the concept of the spirituality of aging – I first look to our religious traditions – for the historic norms. The bible is full of references to aging.

Psalms 92:13 The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree; they shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

Psalms 92:14 Planted in the house of God, they shall flourish in the courts of our God.

Psalms 92:15 They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and richness…positive words.

Psalm 71:  For you are my hope; o Lord God, my trust from my youth.

6 Upon you have I stayed myself from birth; you took me out of my mother’s womb; my praise is continually of you.

7 I am as a wonder unto many; but you are my strong refuge.

8 My mouth shall be filled with your praise, and with your glory all the day.

9 Cast me not off in the time of old age; when my strength fails, forsake me not.

Here we need to understand the concern about the changes life brings to all of us. It is for those who help and for seniors themselves to understand.

Isaiah 46: 3 Hearken unto me, o House of Jacob, and all the remnant of the House of Israel, that are borne [by me] from the birth, that are carried from the womb:

4 even to old age I am the same, and even to hoary hairs will I carry you; I have made, and I will bear; yea, I will carry, and will deliver.

We learn here the positive connections that are so important at all stages of lives and even more so as we age.

Leviticus 19 : 32 You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man, and you shall respect your God: I am the Lord.

Do we honor and respect the elderly?

Each biblical reference acknowledges reality with a sense of dignity trust and hope – does our culture and society hold the same values? Some do some don’t – for some the elderly are to be respected and valued – others see them as outsiders or a burden – always troubled me when I visit nursing homes or senior centers – where are the families???

Today we consider the inter relationship between spirituality and life – I would suggest that potential relationship occurs at all points of one’s life – as Alvin Fine said it so well, “from youth to age” –what has changed? Perhaps a bit more frailty and dependence – that brings a vulnerability that we ignore most of our lives as we highlight our independence and strength – why then is age a weakness and not possibly as the bible would teach a source of wisdom –

Psalm 90: The days of our years are threescore years and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore years; yet is their pride but travail and vanity; for it is speedily gone, and we fly away.

12 so teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.

Dr. Ken Pargament is a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University. He studies the relationship between religion, psychological well-being and stress.

Pargament has published more than 100 papers on the subject of religion and spirituality. His research has provided clinically relevant scientific analyses of religion’s role in mental health. One of Pargament’s best known areas of research has pertained to religious coping, which involves drawing on religious beliefs and practices to understand and deal with life stressors.

Individuals who grow up with a strong religious background seem to negotiate age with greater happiness – his research teaches us the opportunity to reduce risk and stress – providing better more effective coping skills that help get us through life’s changes.

In addition strong faith brings us the benefits of social connections – concrete support from our communities of faith.

And perhaps most importantly a life long sense of self – identity not limited to what we did but who we are as human beings.

I hope many of you have read or will go back and look at Judith Vorst’s now over 20 year old book, Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow

In this book she describes so well the challenges we have as we grow with friendships – relationships that change through time – and how we need to find new connections at all points in our lives or we end up living in isolation.

So here we are today – what are our choices as we consider our lives – how we live and where we live -i see two views – and in essence two vantage points for consideration – the first is based in the forming of the individual – the other on the environment, the community we live in.

But first what do you bring to life – what do you bring to a new living situation – how can each of us make that better or easier – how can we reinforce your sense of worth – identity and meaning – my answer is in building the sacred community – in building a community that is attuned to the special realities you as seniors begin to face – all of the many aspects of frailty and dependence –both physical and mental – and even if none of those  occur the struggle with the perceived loss of independence that comes with both physical and emotional change -moving into a new apartment – or having to give up driving…all of these impact us at some point if we are lucky enough to keep living – none of us are exempt. The ultimate difference is how each individual faces or denies these known realities – whether they do them alone or in a supportive community –and that is where the spirituality of the individual can  make all the difference as all of us negotiate life’s twists and turns. We can help in this journey if we have established or can build new trusting relationships with them.

The second view – is how we build the environment of the community that we live in – how are you welcomed and how do you welcome others – I will use the word “strangers” into – rochester is unique – history and stability –sometimes helpful sometimes not – closed . What matters is how you welcome each other and what you do next – because saying hello is an every day event – welcoming is a process that creates a certain reality –

Spirituality is at the very core of culture – you can try and teach it but ultimately if it is to be real and believable it must be the natural outcome of how we relate to each other.

Our senior population has changed in the past decades – in the 1990’s I served as the chair jewish services for the aged for new york city – we knew the old perceptions of aging were over – enough with the bingo and the finger painting – these are generations of folks who want substance – who are looking for more – who in many cases still have much to give and want real meaning in their lives and that is where serious programming that is developed jointly can make a difference.

Our hope and goal is for all of us to continue to find meaning in life – at every stage along the way – that is what ultimately makes life a sacred pilgrimage – made stage by stage – with caring and community – with engagement and hope – that is our task and our challenge.

Books mentioned in this article:

About Rabbi Laurence Kotok 3 Articles
Rabbi Laurence A. Kotok, DD, is Temple B'rith Kodesh's Rabbinic Scholar and Senior Advisor for Lifelong Jewish Learning. In 2014, Rabbi Kotok retired from his post as Senior Rabbi. He served the community for 18 years. Prior to arriving in Rochester in the summer of 1996, Rabbi Kotok served the North Country Reform Temple Ner Tamid of Glen Cove for 22 years. He expresses a love for the People and Land of Israel and has served as National Chair of the ARZA Rabbinic Cabinet. Additional involvement includes the Board of the Jewish Child Care Association, both the New York and National UJA/Federation. His long-standing involvement with interfaith understanding has been recognized by numerous local and national associations. His founding of the Rochester Kollel, a groundbreaking community-wide adult study program, continues to inform, enlighten and enrich Jews and non-Jews in the Rochester area. Rabbi Kotok currently serves on the faculty at the Florida wide Catholic Seminary.

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