Those of us in -- or approaching -- the second half of life, find ourselves in uncharted terrain. We can expect, with any luck, to live another two, three or even four decades. Our lives are not nearly over. We certainly don't feel old, and in the wake of the economic downturn, retirement will remain for many of us a distant horizon.
We may be stretched thin by the demands of caring for children and parents for years to come. As we grow older, we will surely encounter shatterings -- losses, disappointments, limits and ultimately, death itself. So how are we to forge lives of wholeness? How can we flourish amidst change and challenge?
Jewish life offers us provisions for the journey, precious tools that can enable us to find meaning on the path beyond midlife. One articulation of these tools is the rabbinic prescription: The world stands on three things: on Torah, on worship (avodah), and on deeds of lovingkindness (gemilut chasadim). These tools can have a powerful role in later life:
· Torah: continually learning and teaching. The longer we live, the more we need guidance and inspiration. Recently, eight members of the elder community at Brith Sholom House -- most well over 80 -- had a collective Bat Mitzvah celebration. These women have embraced Torah -- they find affirmation in searching its ancient wisdom. When they came to the Torah for their aliyah, they also embodied the Torah of possibility and growth for their neighbors, children, grandchildren and friends.
· Avodah: sanctifying life's moments through ritual and prayer. Our tradition's rituals for the day, week and year help us to find what Abraham Joshua Heschel called "a sanctuary in time." A friend recently discovered how to imbue the moments of her own life cycle with holiness. Instead of dreading the march of time, she marked her 70th birthday with a wisdom ritual. Her friends and daughters compiled 70 teachings they'd learned from her, and offered blessings for her next chapter. The moment took on beauty and power as it was framed with blessing and community.
· Gemilut chasadim: living in a weave of caring connection. One thing we know is that we cannot flourish in isolation. A treasured 94-year-old friend landed in rehab for three months after a terrible fall. "In some ways, it was a very wonderful experience," she told me. She recounted the kindness of those who helped her, as well as her satisfaction in helping other patients when they despaired of finding the courage to do the painful work before them. It's obvious that being cared for can be healing; my friend teaches us that caring for others transforms us as well.
These provisions for the journey are our Jewish birthright. Each one of us can prepare for the uncertain path ahead by digging "the wells our ancestors dug." We can bring ourselves with curiosity to new learning, we can open our hearts to spiritual connection through prayer, meditation or ritual, and we can stay connected by reaching out to share our talents, and to ask for support when we need it.
We need to ensure that these provisions are available to those walking the path beyond midlife. This means that Jewish education is not just for the young -- lifelong learning must draw the values and visions from our tradition to guide us in the dilemmas of later life.
Worship and spiritual practice should be relevant, compelling and accessible in all stages of life. And we need to connect all Jews beyond midlife -- empty-nesters, caregivers for aging parents, physically vibrant retirees and chronically ill elders -- in webs of caring and interdependence.
We have excelled in providing essential sustenance, such as housing, health care and nutrition, to our elders. We are also obligated to ensure spiritual sustenance, which will enable the growing numbers of Jews beyond midlife to thrive, as opposed to simply survive. Then, and only then, we can fulfill the Psalmist's vision: "They will yet bear fruit in old age, fresh and juicy they'll remain."
Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman directs Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Hiddur and UJA-Federation of New York will hold a conference on these issues in New York on Thursday, Nov. 19. For information, see: www.hiddur.org .