While I was a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, I visited, as a chaplain, many local skilled nursing and assisted living facilities. I conducted Shabbat and holiday services and met with residents in their rooms. I was fascinated by the observation that while I saw most residents at my services, I certainly did not see all of them. As a matter of fact, I once asked one man, who was in his 90s, as to why I never saw him at services, not even the High Holy Days. He answered, “I never went to synagogue my whole life, and I am not going to start now.”
I was intrigued, however, by the adage that as one gets older, a person wants to feel closer to God and usually tries to do so. After all, if another saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes” is true, then if seniors are in that final “foxhole,” they should not be atheists either. Rather they either should already have — or should yearn to have — a relationship with God before they are to meet Him or Her.
For my Human Relations class, I went with a questionnaire to the seniors in one facility where the average age was 85. I asked several questions, but my main goal was to find out how many of them believed in God and for those who did not, did they desire to have such a belief. I was also quite direct in the question, “Do you feel, as you approach the end of your life, a need to be closer to God?’
I was quite surprised by the results of my questionnaire. Those who possessed a belief in God, regardless of their definition of God, came to old age with that belief and held on to it. Those who did not have a belief, based on any definition of the divine, simply felt that there was no need for such a belief regardless of how much time that had left before the “Grim reaper” took them.
I only wish I could conduct a similar questionnaire of those who sign onto to JewishSacredAging.com. Maybe someday I can, but until then, I can pose the following questions to you and ask that you self-answer them and think about your answers. This questionnaire can be titled: Yearning for God, or Not!
- Do you believe in God?
- If so, have you always believed in God?
- Has this belief helped you in your life? How?
- Has this belief helped define you your Jewish life?
- Did you believe in God, but not any longer? If so, why? What happened to cause this change of belief?
- If you lost your faith, do you wish to regain it? Is this desire based upon any experience you have had recently or is it a matter of getting older?
- If you never had a faith in God, do you wish you had one and could have one now? Is this based any experience you have had recently or is it a matter of getting older?
My father’s mother, Paula, was what I called a free thinker. She died just short of the age of 93 and until the day she died she would say to me, “Steven, I know you are a rabbi but I must tell you I do not believe in God!” At times I responded to her by saying that while she might not believe in this overweight spiritual being with a long white beard interacting with human behavior, her life based upon good deeds and good thoughts were god-like and sustained by what I would call a faith in that which is greater than we are.
Regardless of your belief in God, I want to ask you during this most challenging time in our nation’s history to ask yourself: “What and who God is to you?” I do believe that faith in the Divine can help a person get through tough times no matter the age of that person. I also believe, after all my years of pastoral work that many who are closer to the end of life do wish for the spiritual tools to deal with what that means. Those tools are given by a belief in God, who assures that life is never ending because neither is God.
There are surely many opportunities to affirm a person’s belief in God or to learn how to obtain one. There are numerous classes online and there are books in print or eBooks. If it is true, however, that God is no farther than the very breath we take (“But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you may obey it”; Dt. [30:14]), then the place to find God is within your own mind, heart and soul.
The spiritual practice of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov called Hitbodedut can be used by anyone and helps a person to find God and sustain that relationship. It is an “unstructured, spontaneous and individualized form of prayer and meditation through which one would establish a close, personal relationship with God and ultimately see the Divinity inherent in all being.” The Rebbe asked that every person, at least once a day, go to a quiet place and just talk to God. The person needs to talk to God as one would a friend sharing one’s joys, sorrows, successes and failures.
Through this practice of Hitbodedut, a person finds God for God is right there all the time. If this is what you wish, regardless of your age, I hope you can find God in your life. It is never too late to satisfy that yearning for the Divine.