Parshat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim
2004This week we read another double-portion, Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1 – 18:28 and 19:1-20:25). These two portions form the beginning of what is known as the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), a set of directives that help define how Israel is to enact holiness.
The Elder Torah
At the beginning of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-2) we read:
"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy (kedoshim), for I, the Lord your God, am holy."
What it means for the People of Israel "to be holy" has been the subject of much discussion throughout our history. Even though we find a partial answer to this question in the Torah itself through this week's reading, the answer is still far from clear.
Our biblical ancestors saw one route to holiness in our response to elders, elders of age and elders of wisdom.
You shall rise before the aged -mipnei seiva takum -- and show honor to the elder – hadarat penai zaken; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:32)
Your Torah Navigator
1. The term seiva is oft translated using the odd phrase "hoary head". After looking up "hoary" in the dictionary, you will find that it means "gray haired." In short, the Torah tells us to stand before someone up in years. The term zaken can mean either "old" or "elder," that is, one who is chronologically elderly or one deemed by society to be a person of wisdom, regardless of age. How are the terms seiva and zaken related?
2. Why would the Torah use both seiva and zaken?
3. Exactly whom does the Torah instruct us to honor and why?
The Torah has much to teach us about the connections between age and wisdom. Are we to show deference to old people merely because they are old. If so, why? If not, why not? Let's see what our rabbinic ancestors had to say about all this.
Babylonian Talmud Tractate Kiddushin (32)
Our rabbis taught: "You shall rise before the aged." I might think even before an elderly person who is uncultured and ignorant. Therefore (in order to clarify), the Torah states (Numbers 11:16): "Gather unto Me seventy men 'miziknei' (of the elders) of Israel." Rabbi Yose the Galilean says: "The word zaken means only one who has acquired wisdom…"
Isi the son of Yehudah says: "'You shall rise before the aged' implies any aged person," and Rabbi Yohanan says: "The law is as Isi the son of Yehudah." Rabbi Yohanan used to rise before the heathen aged, saying, "How many troubles have passed over these."
Your Talmud Navigator
1. According to the Talmud, what are the two ways to interpret zaken?
2. What kinds of wisdom are there and how might wisdom be acquired through life?
3. Why would Rabbi Yose privilege sages in interpreting our verse? What value is he expressing?
4. Why does Rabbi Yohanan side with Isi? What value is he expressing?
Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Yohanan disagree fundamentally with what it means to be an "elder." Rabbi Yose sees an elder as one who has emerged as a respected teacher and leader in Israel. It is by virtue of one's education, in effect, that one merits the honor of which the Torah speaks. Thus, one need not be "elderly" to merit the honor due an "elder." Rabbi Yose describes the honor that we accord to our rabbis, teachers, and others who have taught us through both words and deeds.
On the other hand, Rabbi Yohanan sees an elder as one who has acquired wisdom through the depth and breadth of one's life experiences. In his view, it is by virtue of having lived many years that an elder deserves to be honored. Rabbi Yohanan's view is expressed well in Leviticus Rabbah 25:5, which recounts how a king invites a very old commoner to sit before him in a golden chair and then the king fills the old man's basket with money. When questioned by his courtiers, "Will you show all this honor to that old Jew?," the king replies, "His creator honors him, and shall not I honor him, too?" In short, by having lived a full life, the very old man has earned the respect of the king. Nowadays, we show respect for the elderly in many ways, including literally rising as they enter the room, giving up our seats for them, visiting with them, and -- let's not forget -- sending their photos to Willard Scott on the Today Show.
Each time the Torah is taken for the Holy Ark, the congregation rises. In so doing we show honor to our sacred text, the source of our wisdom, a link with our past. Thus, elders, no matter how we define "elders," are like the Torah. We are to rise in their presence. Elders, like Torah, can fill our minds with information and inspiration. They can tell us what is and what ought to be. In this respect, an elder needn't be "hoary haired," just learned and in a position to impart information to us. But the "hoary haired" provide us with a much needed perspective on life that can only come from having lived many years. Their wisdom is practical but often more illuminating than the wisdom of those we commonly refer to as our teachers. And they adorn our lives with a precious connection to generations past. Indeed, Proverbs (25:31) refers to old age as "a crown of splendor."
Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Yohanan are both right. The elder of culture and learning and the elder of years both merit that we rise before them. To be sure, in showing deference to elders we honor the Torah that resides within each of them. And by honoring Torah, we honor God.
Prepared by Rabbi Daniel Aronson, Dean of Admissions and Recruitment at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Acharei Mot and Kedoshim at MyJewishLearning.com.