I was in college when I first heard the Beatles sing “When I’m Sixty-four.” The idea of getting older, losing my hair or wondering whether my partner would still need me was not my concern. But now, with Paul McCartney over 70, and me just one year away from 64, it’s a different story.
In Pirke Avot we read: “At 5 years old, you begin Torah. At 10, Mishnah. At 13, you are responsible for mitzvot. At 15, for Talmud. At 18, you get married. At 20, you are ready to pursue a career. At 30, for strength. At 40, for understanding. At 50, for advice. At 60, for zikna.”
Zikna is hard to translate. Old age? Maturity? Some commentaries read the word as an acronym for ze sh’kana chochma: “one who has acquired wisdom.”
The stages of a life are measured differently now than in the days of Pirke Avot. For my parents, the stages were childhood, adolescence, midlife (when the task was the building of career and family), and then old age. Now there is a new stage between midlife and old age.
The social scientist, Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, once observed: “Boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) are the first generation in human history … to reasonably anticipate living … into their 80s and 90s if not beyond. … Jews (as others) are not only living longer, they are living in an age of meaning-seeking, with the interest and wherewithal to make living a life of meaning an ultimate and reasonably obtainable objective. … As such, this aging, yet largely healthy generation of American Jews poses a challenge and an opportunity to a … community that is as yet unprepared for the totally new policy and planning opportunities that loom in the near future.”
And we baby boomers are a huge cohort; beginning in January 2011, one person in the United States turned 65 every eight seconds, and that will continue for more than 15 years.
At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, through our project “Leaning in to Wisdom: The Next Stage Initiative for Boomers,” we have brought baby boomers and those slightly beyond together to talk about this new stage of their lives. Some boomers talk about the fear of becoming invisible, passed over or ignored. Still others describe being caught in the middle, sandwiched between elderly parents who need care, attention and often financial support, at the same time that adult children are coming home to live.
Many are just beginning to think about how to reimagine themselves when they are no longer working full time or raising their children. Some are worried about becoming isolated as friends die or move away. My husband, Richard, and I wonder where and in what kind of setting we will live when one or both of us can’t negotiate the 35 stairs leading up to our house or when we can no longer drive safely.
We know, though many of us would want to deny it, that there is less time left than there was until now. The bottom-line question for me and for so many others: How does one make meaning and purpose out of the time we have left? While that question is in front of all of us, no matter what stage of life we are in, it is right in your face once you turn 60.
This question is at the core of what it means to acquire wisdom. How can Jewish tradition help us answer it and guide us toward creating meaning in the rest of our life? What kind of learning, of travel, of housing, of service to others will create the community we want? How do we stay connected to both younger and older people? What kinds of spiritual practice will help us cultivate the traits now that will enable us to age gracefully? What new rituals does this stage of life call for?
Imagine the time when you might have to move your parents from their home to a retirement community. Then you go back to their home, maybe even the home where you and your siblings grew up, to clean it out. Beginning that task is a sacred moment. How do you acknowledge it?
Or think about someone who has lost a spouse and comes to the moment when he or she is ready to take off a wedding ring. How might that moment be marked with close family and friends in a way that honors the dead and at the same time supports the Jewish value that we move on from mourning and embrace life?
Or how do we get together to talk with our adult children about how we want to be cared for as death approaches? You’d be surprised how many times I sit in a hospital room with a dying congregant whose grown children have very different ideas about what mom or dad wanted. Making your wishes known is a sacred conversation, and its absence often leads to real pain and family disintegration.
Jewish tradition has so much to offer us baby boomers. In fact, the story of our people begins with Avram and Sarai at this stage of their lives. They are mature adults. And at a time when others might simply have grown old, they respond to an invitation from God to go to an unknown place where God will send them.
Our stories mirror that cosmic story; like them, we don’t really know where the next journey will take us. At the moment God calls to Avram and Sarai, three things happen. The first is that their names are changed to Abraham and Sarah; to each name a “hey” is added: God’s name. The second is that they make a covenant, a new promise to God. And the third is that they offer a sacrifice.
These three actions have proven particularly helpful to me as I move into this new phase of life. My name is (metaphorically) changing. Almost a year ago, I added a new name — mother-in-law — as my son got married. Someday soon (God willing) I will add another name — grandmother. Inevitably, sometime in the future, my name will change from daughter to orphan. And many years from now, it will change from senior rabbi to Laura, from a pulpit rabbi to a Jew in the pews. What work do I need to do to discover the blessings and even the presence of God in my new names?
Second, I feel the need to make a covenant that articulates my life purpose. For Abraham and Sarah, it was a covenant with God. They were clear about their life’s purpose. I am less clear about mine. The only way to get clear is to look back, understand what I have achieved and where I’ve made mistakes, and to think about how I want to do things differently. A useful Jewish tool for me has been writing an ethical will, a letter to my children and, I hope, to their children, about how I want to be remembered and what I hope my legacy will be.
Third, I want to understand what it means that Abraham (and Sarah) offered a sacrifice. The word “l’hakriv,” sacrifice, comes from the root that means both “coming close” and “letting go.” This is a challenge to me: to really explore what I need to let go of and to what I want to draw close.
When God called Avram and Sarai, God said: “And you will be a blessing.” Embracing that our names are changing, clarifying and recalibrating our purpose, exploring what we want to draw close to and what we need to let go, these are the steps on our journey to wisdom, the work of this stage of our life. Doing this work is how one’s life becomes a blessing.
Rabbi Laura Geller is a senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.