Monday, 21 Nov 2016

Written by Roberta Harris-Eckstein

 ‘And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba, which is Hebron . . . ‘

This week we read of the death of Sarah, Abraham’s beloved wife.  She was 127 years old when she died, and Abraham a mere 137.  But he was still the active head of his household and a shrewd businessman.  He purchased the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron, together with the field in front of it and all its trees (the owner of a tree was not necessarily the owner of the land it grew on).  Yes, he did  pay well over the odds – probably, in fact, several hundred times over the odds; but everyone would have known about the extraordinary purchase and thus he undoubtedly established himself as having property rights in a land in which, up to that point, he had been only a resident alien and a herder of animals.  This was in a land where the natives were farmers – and probably were not too keen on animals occasionally trampling their fields and eating their crops.  So Abraham had the business sense to pay for the privilege of being accepted as a landowner with rights among them.

Even though, in our terms, he was well into retirement by that time, he was still very active in mind and body; because after Sarah’s death he married again, this time Keturah, with whom he had another six sons.  Not bad!  But then he and Sarah had only begun their great adventure when he was 75 and she 65 and they packed everything up and left Haran.  So in our terms they had already got their bus passes before they started out on their journey.  What a model to take for our own in our day, when many of us live so much longer as active and healthy people.

Not that many women are likely to give birth, as Sarah did, at the age of 90.  They were late starters indeed.  And in fact two of the most significant things that Abraham had to accomplish happened after Sarah’s death (in fact arguably because of her death).   The first, as we have seen, was the purchase of the Machpelah as a burial place for Sarah (and later for himself and some, at least, of their descendants) and the second was when he sent his household servant back to Haran, the land of his childhood, to find a bride for Isaac.  God had promised him the land and descendants by Sarah, but Abraham himself had to initiate the process – and he did.

Perhaps this is a lesson for all of us – take a look at the example of our founding Patriarch and Matriarch and decide that we too can still work to achieve our goals  and ambitions in old (-er) age.

Many of you reading this will know that I began my rabbinic studies when I was 67, that I am now 71 and haven’t yet reached ordination: I am an old(-er) woman in a hurry to achieve my goal and ambition.  Mine is to be able to provide rabbinic care for the increasing numbers of elderly people in our community.  Quite properly most of our resources are dedicated to our youth, without whom there is no future for the Jewish people.  But it just cannot be right to ignore the needs of the elderly and infirm among us, who once carried our community on their shoulders and now need us to carry them.

It was, therefore with great relief that I learned at Chagigah, the MRJ biennial conference last summer, that there is a new initiative in the making called the ‘Communities that Care Initiative: combating loneliness and isolation’.    Its first report lays out the measures that different communities already have in place to combat the difficulties of old age.  The next step is the creation of practical ways in which synagogues can share best practice and each can implement those courses of action that suit it best.  Most of this will be much needed practical, social action, aimed at the problems of isolation, illness and dementia; volunteers to visit, give lifts, organize social activities, cook meals, invite to seder nights and the thousand and one things that are already done to greater or lesser extent in many communities where the need exists.  Because of today’s demographics it is growing year on year, and therefore the demand is growing year on year.   If we do not organize our resources now there will be little chance of meeting it in the coming years.  Gradually recognition of this has grown so that now measures are beginning to be put in place to deal with it.

Most of this is practical social action caring for the body and the mind, but there is also the question of spiritual need.  After all, the elderly and infirm are nearer the end than the beginning of their lives, and they need a rabbi to talk to.  But most Rabbis are already overstretched in the work they do with their communities.  Although of course they pay pastoral visits to the sick, the housebound or the elderly in their own homes or residential homes, they cannot possibly do all that is needed among this increasing and increasingly needy group.  It is my ambition to be among the first rabbis whose specific remit is the pastoral care of this group of people.  My wish is to be a rabbi who has time to share a cup of tea with someone who welcomes the opportunity to have a conversation with a rabbi.

And the other part of my ambition is not to be a one-off.  I hope that there will be other rabbis old and young, who will be ready to enter this old-new field.  There may, in time, be trained volunteers (there are already some) who will be able to undertake this work as well.  None of us need to be young.  With the example of Sarah and Abraham before us, being older is no bar to giving pastoral care to (even) older members of our communities.  Think about it – and think about joining us, via your synagogues and the ‘Communities that Care Initiative’.  Please, think about it.

LBC rabbinic student Roberta Harris-Eckstein