Acharei Mot I, Leviticus 16:1–17:16
D’VAR TORAH BY: CANTOR JILL ABRAMSON
Editor’s note: This d’var Torah originally appeared on urj.org. It is republished here with Cantor Abramson’s permission.
Ever heard of gerotranscendence? The term refers to the urgent search for meaning by elderly individuals. Swedish gerontologist, Lars Tornstam, developed his theory of gerotranscendence over two decades of research. Elaborating on Tornstam’s theory, geriatric authority Dr. Bill Thomas explains the inner workings of gerotranscendence in a 2011 article on ChangingAging.com:
“The core of the theory suggests that normal human aging includes a range of vital and commonly overlooked components…There is an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decreased interest in superfluous social interaction. There is also often a feeling of cosmic awareness, and a redefinition of time, space, life, and death. The individual becomes less self-occupied and at the same time more selective in the choice of social and other activities.”
Older individuals redefine their concepts of time and space, and life and death because their aging changes their perceptions of those concepts. Death is more apparent, more visible, and more frequent amongst their peers. Suddenly, it seems that ‘everyone’ is dying. The older a person gets, the more people they know who have died. One’s own death looms closer as the years go by.
The portion begins with the two words: Acharei mot. With gerotranscendence in mind, we realize: the most important word is not mot (death), but the word acharei (after). We all encounter death. We all grieve. We mourn. The important question is: what do we do after the death of those around us? How do we live our lives? Our Torah teaches that there is something quite literally, acharei mot, after death.
The portion begins by noting the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were struck down after offering an “alien fire” in their offering to God. (Lev 10:2) Their death was unanticipated. Their lives were cut short. God responds to their deaths by instructing Aaron to teach the Israelites all the laws which God has imparted to them through Moses (Lev 10:11), ensuring the continuity of teachings.
While aging bestows its share of challenges and even indignities, the more urgent search for meaning that gerontologist Tornstam describes has the potential to enrich our lives in countless ways. Changing our priorities and changing our focus can be exciting.
In a landmark multi-decade study known as the “Longevity Project,” researchers Howard Friedman and Lesley Martin sought to understand what characteristics are correlated with those who live the longest. In their book, they note their finding that people who see ripe age “…do not die from working long hours at a challenging job – many who worked the hardest lived the longest. Getting and staying married is [also] not the magic ticket to a long life. [And] It’s not the-happy-go lucky who thrive–it’s the prudent and the persistent who flourish over the years.”
Interestingly enough, Friedman and Martin report that one of the key markers to health and long life is participation in a congregation. Not necessarily piety or religious belief but being part of a community of practice. Friedman and Martin write, “The guideposts we identify… do not point directly to the church, the synagogue, or the mosque. Nor do they steer us to the meditation garden with incense and candles. Instead, the most important characteristics… are linked to social networks and community engagement.”
Being part of a congregation or community and finding people with whom we can mark life’s transitions can soften the impact of ‘curveballs,’ nourish us, and help us live longer lives. Novelist Tara Isabelle Burton explained in a New York Times opinion piece that most of us long for “…a meaningful world, a viable place within it, a community to share it with, [and] rituals to render ordinary life sacred.”
The 71st Psalm tells of an aching plea: Al tashlicheni l’ayt zikna (Do not cast me off as I grow old). As we age, we are each given a gift – the gift of gerotranscendence. It allows us to ask in ever deepening ways: what is the meaning of my life? What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? How do I want to connect? One thing we surely know: we will not live forever. Acharei mot reminds us of that. It says: don’t miss the chance.
Cantor Jill Abramson is the incoming Interim Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the first woman to serve in this role. She is the sole clergy leader of Congregation Shir Ami in Greenwich CT, after completing a 12-year term as Senior Cantor of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York.