Friday, 01 Jan 2010

Written by Rabbi Daniel Smith

Parashat Vayechi starts: “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years: so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years” (Gen. 47:28).
When Jacob had arrived in Egypt seventeen years earlier, Pharaoh asked him his age, and Jacob then answered: “The days of the years of my sojourning are a hundred and thirty years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life” (Gen. 47:9).

When Jacob was 130, the years of his life had seemed few and evil to him. He had suffered much, and lost his dear mother, his darling wife and his beloved son.

Now that Jacob is 147, perhaps the text is telling us that Jacob really lived fully those last 17 years of his life in Egypt, surrounded by his family, in peace and plenty, and supported by his favourite son Joseph who had seemed dead but was wondrously restored to him. Had Jacob died at 130 his life would have seemed poor and miserable. Now seventeen years later, his life feels full and rich to him.

The last years of our life can be very important in giving our whole life a deeper and happier meaning. I learnt this from Irene Bloomfield who taught Pastoral Care and Counselling at Leo Baeck College, while also working as a Senior Psychotherapist in the NHS.

Irene was a pioneer in her counselling work with older people. She disagreed with Freud’s statement that “Near or above the age of 50, the elasticity of mental processes, on which the treatment depends is, as a rule, lacking. Old people are no longer educable.”  

Really? Old people over the age of fifty are no longer educable! Irene did not accept this. She had the highest moral standards, but she was not overly respectful of mere conventions. She worked with people in their sixties and in their seventies (not always with the enthusiastic support of the NHS officials), and she did some life-enhancing and life-transforming work with older people. She herself continued working into her seventies and eighties, and she remained sharp, bright and helpful.

In 1905 when Freud wrote his statement, the average life expectancy in Europe was not even fifty. In recent years average life expectancy is estimated to be almost eighty. In our communities we have become aware that the last years of a long life can contain valuable experience and be rich in meaning and fulfilment.  Different stages in life bring different problems and opportunities.  

Recent concerns about pensions remind us we are living in an ageing society.  We should celebrate this fact.  We live longer, and can contribute to the community and to society well beyond our working years.  

Forty years ago the queen signed 300 telegrams a year for people who reached the age of a hundred. In twenty years time it is anticipated it will be 34,000 a year. The Queen has stopped personally signing telegrams.

In 2040 there will be 2.2 million people in Britain aged over 85 (including, possibly, me). We are adding years to our life, but are we adding life to our years? I think it is great that we are living longer—how can we learn to live better!

One of Irene’s last lectures was entitled ‘Women and Old Age’. She said:
“I have spoken previously about the elderly, but since I turned 80 myself a few months ago, I had to recognise that I am now old, so this time I want to speak about women in old age . . .  I want to ask therefore: Does life have to be bleak or can the old still make a contribution to their communities and remain creative? “

Irene quoted the poet Longfellow:

“Age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away,
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.“

Irene’s concern made me think of the life of Sarah. Parashat Chayyei Sarah begins with an unusual formulation which keeps repeating the word ‘years’ and the word ‘life’:.“And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah” (Gen. 23:1).The rabbis comment that Sarah lived all the years of her life fully and well, and when she was 100, life was as rich and beautiful as it had been when she was 20. These words could have applied to Irene when she reached old age.

Irene suggested that the number of years we live is not the relevant factor. If the old are given the right kind of support and surroundings, then they can make a contribution to their communities and remain creative. Life does not have to be bleak. It can bring new adventure and depth of experience.

Irene was especially fond of the Poet TS Eliot:

“Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion”
(Four Quartets – ‘East Coker’ )

May we, like Jacob, Sarah, and Irene Bloomfield, find ways to bestow blessings on others, even to our final breath.

Rabbi Daniel Smith
January 2010

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.