We all know something about the natural course of aging, and the toll it takes on our bodies and minds. But we are much less familiar with the social impact of aging. Older persons are no different in their need for respect, admiration, and approval from others in their social circle.
A revered mentor once explained to me how he realized that, at least in the eyes of others, he was getting old. “I find that people give me honor and respect, but not power. They seem to be listening carefully to what I say, but they do not really hear my words and never heed them.”
There is a phrase in this week’s portion that the rabbis of the Midrash refuse to pass by without comment. The first verse reads: “And it came to pass on the eighth day that Moses called out to Aaron and to his sons and to the elders of Israel.”
Rabbi Simon ben Yochai, a second-century talmudic sage revered for his mystical insights, is impressed by the role the community elders play, not only in this verse, but throughout the Torah. He comments:
“We find that the Holy One Blessed be He bestowed the honor upon the elderly very frequently.
“At the burning bush: ‘Go and gather the elders of Israel’; in Egypt: ‘And you and the elders of Israel shall approach…’; at Sinai: ‘Go up to the Lord, you… and 70 of the elders of Israel’; in the desert: ‘Gather unto me 70 men from among the elders of Israel’; at the Tent of Meeting: ‘Moses called upon…the elders of Israel.’
“And in the messianic future the Holy One will again bestow honor upon the elderly, as it is written (Isaiah 24:23), ‘The moon will be embarrassed and the sun ashamed, for the Lord of Hosts will Himself reign upon Mount Zion and Jerusalem, and His elders will be granted honor.’” (Midrash Rabba Leviticus 11:8)
This emphasizes something fundamental to Judaism: Not only are the elderly granted kavod or respect, they are an indispensable resource for the community and its leaders.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) says: “Before Abraham age did not exist.” This does not mean there were no old people before Abraham, nor that people got older but did not show signs of age.
One of my revered teachers, Rabbi Nisan Telushkin (of blessed memory) explained this as follows: Until Abraham, the world was materialistic and the primary activities were practical ones that allowed for physical survival. Age was no advantage at all; what was necessary was the vigor and energy of youth.
Abraham introduced the spiritual dimension, in which the skills of age became more and more important. He was the first “old man” because he was the first person of age to be revered as an essential part of the leadership of the human community.
Judaism insists that there is a role for the elders, and not just a marginal role. This lesson is so basic to our faith that the elderly are front and center in the Torah’s account of our national beginnings.