Old age does not begin on a particular birthday. It begins when we foresee the end of our lives, pull back from asserting ourselves in the world, and pass down our teachings, blessings, and gifts to the next generation.
In the book of Genesis/Berieshit, Abraham’s old age begins when he is 137. After he buries his wife Sarah, he stops traveling and making deals with other clans. He commissions his steward to journey to Aram to arrange a marriage for his son Isaac. Once that is done, Abraham takes a new wife and sires six more sons, obviously enjoying his retirement. His only other activity is to arrange his estate. He gives gifts to his new sons, then leaves the balance of his estate to Isaac.
Abraham passes down gifts before he dies, at age 175. But the Torah does not say he blesses anyone.
Abraham breathed his last and he died at a good old age, old and sated; and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)
Isaac’s old age is less pleasant. At age 123, when he wants to give a deathbed blessing, he is blind and cannot get up easily. His wife Rebecca does not trust him to give the right blessing to the right son, so she cooks up a deception that results in both their sons leaving home. Then Isaac lingers on for another 57 years, presumably still blind and bedridden, while his sons Jacob and Esau have adventures and build up their own clans. Isaac finally dies at age 180.
And Isaac breathed his last, and he died, and he was gathered to his people, old and sated in days; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him. (Genesis 35:29)
The Torah does not describe Isaac’s death exactly the same way as Abraham’s. While Abraham dies at a good old age, sated with life, Isaac apparently dies feeling that he has spent more than enough time waiting for death.
Isaac’s son Jacob wants to die prematurely. When his older sons bring him the bloody tunic of his beloved son Joseph. Jacob jumps to the conclusion that Joseph is dead, and says:
… I will go down to my son in mourning, to Sheol. (Genesis 37:35)
Jacob sees no reason to go on living without either of the two people he loves the most: his second wife, Rachel, and their older son, Joseph. He is depressed and inconsolable for a long time, but eventually he becomes attached to Rachel’s younger son, Benjamin, and takes an interest in life again—at least enough so that when the famine comes,he sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy food. Nine of them return, with the news that the viceroy of Egypt imprisoned Shimon, and they cannot go back to Egypt and liberate him unless they bring Benjamin with them. Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go. He retains control of the family, keeping his remaining sons at home until Judah takes responsibility for Benjamin’s life. Then Jacob tells his sons what to take with them to Egypt and how to approach the viceroy. He is still in charge. But he demonstrates a new maturity when he says:
And may God of Nurture grant you mercy before the man, so he will send you off with your other brother and with Benjamin. And as for myself, when I am bereaved, I am bereaved. (Genesis 43:14)
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (And he stepped close), the viceroy of Egypt reveals that he is actually Joseph. He sends all eleven of his brothers back to Jacob, along with wagons, donkeys, and provisions, so that the whole clan can move to Egypt.
They went up from Egypt and they came to the land of Canaan, to Jacob, their father. And they told him, saying Joseph was still alive, and that he was ruling over the whole land of Egypt; but his heart was numb, because he did not trust them. Then they spoke to him all the words that Joseph had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to give him dignity. Then the spirit of Jacob, their father, revived. So Israel said: How great! Joseph, my son, is still alive! I will go and I will see him before I die. (Genesis 45:25-28)
After Jacob’s spirit revives, the Torah calls him by the name Israel, the name he earned by wrestling with God and man. As Israel, his better self, he is willing to go to a foreign land where he will be a dependent on his son. To see Joseph again, he is willing to give up being the man in charge of his clan. He is willing, at age 130, to embrace old age. He acknowledges his coming death, but he no longer wants to rush into it.
In next week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (And he lived), Jacob/Israel lives for another 17 years in Egypt. He is no longer in charge of his clan, but he is with his beloved Joseph. At the end of his life, Jacob becomes blind, but when he blesses Joseph’s two sons, he knows exactly what he is doing. Then, before he dies, he passes on his insights in the form of a different individual prophecy for each of his twelve sons, followed by twelve individual blessings. He gives instructions for his burial.
Then Jacob finished directing his sons, and he gathered his feet into the mitah, and he breathed his last, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33)
mitah = bed of blankets. (from the same root as matteh = staff, branch, tribe)
I think Jacob achieves a good old age, perhaps better than Abraham’s. He does not sire any more children, but he does give teachings and blessings before he dies. The sentence describing his death can be read as saying that he gathered himself into his tribe, before he was gathered by death.
This month I am watching my stepfather face his approaching death, and I feel sad that he cannot enjoy more of the good life he found in his old age.
I am also reflecting on my own old age. I am only 58, but I wonder: Is it time to let go of some of my responsibilities and authority? Is it time to pull back from asserting myself in the world, and focus instead on teaching and giving blessings? Maybe if I walk into the next stage of my life now, my old age will be long and fruitful, like Abraham’s. Maybe I will even become wise in old age, like Jacob.
It is not easy to accept old age and death. But I believe acceptance can lead to contentment.