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Learn Something Jewish: Respecting Your Elders

by Hillel News |Sep 17, 2008|Comments
As Hillel is a college organization, its professionals spend a great deal of time and energy appealing to youth, exploring early adulthood and teaching the "young" how to embrace Judaism before they become "too old."

But Jewish history puts much emphasis on its elders and the wisdom they bestow. In fact, ancient tradition forbids the study of Kabbalah until the age of 40 - the supposed age of understanding. Jewish teachings are clear: "You should rise before the elderly and honor the aged." (Leviticus 19:32).

Why? Rabbi Boruch Leff, a Baltimore-based educator and author, offers this explanation:

The Hebrew word for elderly is "zaken" which is an acronym for "zeh shekaneh chachma" -- a person who has acquired wisdom. The Talmud states that the respect we owe the aged applies to Torah scholars and non-Torah scholars, Jews and non-Jews (Kidushin 32b). What is the rationale for this respect?

A few years ago we gave great glory to 80-year-old John Glenn for repeating his flight into space. We all marveled then at Senator Glenn's physical condition and bestowed upon him western society's highest accolade: his body still functioned like a much younger man's. The Torah has the exact opposite vision when it comes to respect for elders.

The Maharal (16th century Prague) explains that the respect we pay to age is specifically because the physical forces are no longer what they once were (Avot 5:25). In youth, the body's physicality tends to control a person. We are prey to hedonistic urges and impulses. As those physical forces weaken, that which is distinctively human about us, our soul, becomes the influential drive in our lives. Our divinely given intelligence gains control over our base instincts. This is the wisdom we attain in old age, and why the Torah commands us to rise in respect for the elderly.

The Chassidic Rebbe of Ger (20th century Israel) made it a practice to regularly visit older people, even those who were not known for their great sage insight or devoutness. Like many people, He would often go to nursing homes, but above and beyond the kindness involved, he had an additional intention when doing so: "They barely have bodies left and their physical yearnings have long been abandoned. When I look at them, I see pure souls. And there is nothing more inspiring than spending time with pure souls!"

As the Talmud states, "For hedonistic people, the more they age, the more their minds wane; but for Torah scholars, the more they age, the more their minds become sharpened" (Kinim, 3:6).

"I embrace aging... as you grow, you learn more. If you stayed at 22, you'd always be as ignorant as you were at 22. Aging is not just decay, you know. It's growth. People who are always saying, 'I wish I were young again' reflect unsatisfied lives, unfulfilled lives, lives that haven't found any meaning. Because if you've found meaning in your life, you don't want to go back. You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more." -Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Rabbi Boruch Leff is a vice-principal at Torah Institute in Baltimore and is the author of the Kol Yaakov column at Aish.com. Rabbi Leff's original piece was published on Aish.com in 2005.

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