Our prayers change as we grow older. We see that clearly in the biblical stories of Jacob, who utters two very different prayers at two important moments in his life. The first was when he was young, as he is running away from home to escape the fury of his brother from whom he has stolen both birthright and blessing. "If God will be with me and God will guard me on this way that I am going; and God will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear and I will return b'shalom to my father's house and YHVH will be a God to me, then this stone which I have set as a pillar shall become a house of God, and whatever you will give me, I shall give a tenth to you" (Genesis 28: 20-22). It is the prayer of a young man, arrogant, entitled and conditional. Jacob is making a deal with God.
Then, 20 years later, after he had married, had children, dealt with difficult family conflict and become wealthy, after "life intervenes," he is finally returning home, frightened that his brother Esau will still want to kill him.
Now his prayer is quite different:
"God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, YHVH, who said to me, 'Return to your land and to your birthplace and I will do good with you' -- I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have so steadfastly shown to (me) your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps (when I left I had nothing; now I'm rich.) Deliver me I pray from the hand of my brother. ... You have said, 'I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring ... too numerous to count." (Genesis 32:10-13)
This prayer is more humble. He acknowledges gratitude for the abundance of his life. He is concerned about more than just his own safety. And while he reminds God of the promise of protection, he is no longer making a deal.
Life intervenes -- and our prayers change. Just as there are different tasks for the different stages of our lives, there are different prayers.
The earliest Jewish formulation of the stages of our lives comes from a classic text from the Second Century called Pirke Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers.
"Rabbi Judah used to say, at 5 years old one begins the study of Torah. At 10 the study of Mishnah, at 13 he is ready to obey the commandments. At 15 he begins the study of Gemara; at 18 he marries: at 20, he enters the chase. At 30 he is at full strength; at 40 he gains the power of understanding. At 50 he can begin to give advice to others; at 60 he enters old age. At 70 he turns grey. At 80 he becomes full of vigor. At 90 he is broken down; at 100 it is as if he were already dead and had passed away from the world." (Ethics of the Fathers, Pirkei Avot 5:24)
In a tradition so replete with commentary, it is surprising how little commentary there is on Pirke Avot. One comes from a 16th century mystic living in Sfat named Ibn Machiri, who wrote a book called "The Order of the Day," published in 1598. He comments on these different stages, bringing what we would call spiritual and psychological insight. In an article in "A Heart of Wisdom" (Ed. Susan Berrin 1997), Hillel Goelman illucidates the commentary.
For Ibn Machiri, age 40 is the midpoint because of the verse of Psalm 90:10: "The days of our years are the three-score years and ten, or even by reason of strength four-score years." At this stage "the strengths of the spirit and intellect are just awakening." This awakening leads to questions about the purpose of life. Age 50 is the time we deepen that self reflection, focusing on looking backward over our mistakes and using our wisdom to teach others. At 60 we begin to really get that we will someday day die but that there is still time to turn our lives around. At 70 all this gets quite urgent. We have so little time and so much to do to prepare. Eighty, like 8, represents the time after completeness, the next day after Shabbat. The "vigor" comes from the spiritual work that has led to this stage. And though our bodies often betray us in our 90s, a person who lives into the 90s has so much to teach others that we should seek them out as role models and mentors.
Different stages, different spiritual work, different prayers. Where are you in your life now? What questions are you asking? What help do you need? From where?
The commentary focuses on individuals and the choices we each make. But at the very end Ibn Machiri offers another classic text from Pirke Avot which teaches something very important: "K'neh lecha chaver: acquire for yourself a friend." We can't do this work alone; we need to be part of a community where we can voice these questions, express our fears about getting older, explore the opportunities new stages can offer and interact with people who are aging wisely, mentors whose own lives could point the way.
We who live in a culture that is embarrassed by aging need communities that can support us in this work. Our synagogue (Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills) is engaged in a year long "listening campaign," bringing people together to share their stories, hopes and fears about growing older. Out of this "deep listening" will come strategies, programs, learning opportunities, service to others, mentoring and most important: a community that will help each of us acquire wisdom as our own prayers continue to deepen and mature.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more