And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his ancestors.
In our current Torah cycle it's hard to miss the theme of mortality. Sarah dies and needs to be buried. By the end of the Torah reading, Abraham too, will breath his last. While Sarah's death takes us by surprise, we are ready and primed for Abraham's. Throughout these narratives, Abraham's age has been mentioned repeatedly after large milestone events in his story: his departure for Canaan (75), the birth of his first son (86), entering the covenant (99), the birth of his second (100), and then finally his death (175). He begins his new life at 75, and what a life it is: full of surprises, challenges and personal growth.
I was struck by the stark contrast between the story of Abraham and the article by Ezekiel Emanuel in The Atlantic some weeks ago entitled "Why I Hope to Die at 75." Emanuel makes the case that by 75 his life will be complete. "I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life's projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make." His conclusion: "Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy." He writes that he is absolutely sure of his conclusion.
I am absolutely sure of nothing in this life and applaud him for his confidence. I cannot agree with him, however. If you have had a blessed life, why shave off time from that blessing? Of course, there are all the fears attendant upon aging that are real and terrifying: loss of bodily strength and decline of health, loss of mental capacity, loneliness, financial worries. There are no shortage of potential problems. But that is true of any age. And perhaps we hide behind these worries because the real worry - the fear of dying - seems so hard to confront. If we decide we're going at 75 (I don't think he picked a month, just a year) no matter what, we are trying falsely to control something beyond our control.
One of the great contributions of the Abraham stories is the faith it gives us in aging spiritually and modeling the good death. Abraham's was a life of challenges he overcame with his immense faith in the future. As he aged, he had important succession plans to put in place for the glorious enterprise he began. He also created a second family, perpetuating and spreading the tradition he began. When the time came, he gave gifts to the living, not waiting for the arguments to spawn over inheritance. We need people to age well so they can teach us how to age well. It's harder to do that well when we willingly duck out because we've made some decision and attached it to an arbitrary number. Why not 74.5 or 77?
I have learned so much from the wise elders in my life, and I could not get those lessons from anyone with less life experience. It's in those moments across time that our humanity shines, as Shel Silverstein shares in his poem: "The Little Boy and the Old Man"
Said the little boy, "Sometimes I drop my spoon."
Said the old man, "I do that too."
The little boy whispered, "I wet my pants."
"I do that too," laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, "I often cry."
The old man nodded, "So do I."
"But worst of all," said the boy, "it seems
Grown-ups don't pay attention to me."
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
"I know what you mean," said the little old man.
We deprive the world of compassion and respect for wisdom when we decide to prematurely say goodbye. "Do not forsake me when I am old; do not cast me away when my strength is gone" (Psalms 71:9). Nourish me when I am old. Take care of me when I cannot take care of myself. Surprise me with something I can not expect at an age I wouldn't have expected it, like a journey to a new land, a new faith, and a new family.