Recently, I was a weekend guest scholar at a senior citizens’ residence. I dispensed with my prepared lectures and instead tried to engage the residents of the facility, not one of whom was less than 90 years old, in a group discussion.
The question that I raised to provoke discussion was this: “What made you first realize that you were getting ‘older’?” There were clearly two very different sets of responses.
One member of the group responded, “I knew I was getting older when people started to ignore me. I was no more than a piece of furniture to them. Worse, they no longer noticed me at all.”
About half of the group expressed their agreement with this person’s experience. But then some of the others spoke up. One gentleman said it for the rest of this second group: “I knew that I was getting older when passengers on the subway or bus stood up for me and gave me their seat.” That basic gesture of respect conveyed to the members of this group of senior citizens that they had indeed reached the age when they were not ignored, but rather the beneficiaries of acts of deference.
The discussion then entered another phase, as both groups agreed that, while they certainly did not want to be ignored, they also were resentful of these gestures of respect. They wanted their opinions to be heard, their life experience to be appreciated, and their accumulated wisdom to be acknowledged. Symbolic gestures were insufficient, and sometimes were even experienced as demeaning.
This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, contains the basic biblical commandment regarding treatment of the elderly: “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” (ibid. 19:32)
Rashi’s comments on this verse indicate how sensitive he was to the subtle reactions expressed by the members of my little group. Here is what he says, paraphrasing the Talmudic sages: “What is deference? It is refraining from sitting in his place, and not interrupting his words. Whereas one might think to simply close his eyes and pretend not to even see the old person, the verse cautions us to fear your God, for after all, he knows what is in the heart of man…”
Interestingly, not sitting in his seat means much more than just giving him a seat on the bus. It means recognizing that the elderly person has his own seat, his own well-earned place in society, which you, the younger person, dare not usurp. It is more than just a gesture. It is an acknowledgement of the valued place the elder has in society, a place which is his and his alone.
There is also a practical motive for honoring the elderly. In the commentary of Abraham Ibn Ezra, he explains the phrase, “You shall fear your God,” in the following way: “The time will come when you will be old and frail and lonely. You will long for proper treatment at the hands of the young. But if you showed disrespect for the elderly when you were young, and did not ‘fear God,’ God will not reward you with the treatment you desire in your own old age.”
As each of us strives to show genuine respect to our elders we help construct a society in which the elderly have their proper place. That society will hopefully still be there when we become older, and then we will reap the benefits of our own youthful behavior.
Our Torah portion is entitled Kedoshim, which means “holy.” One of the major components of the holy society is the treatment it accords to every one of its members, especially those who are vulnerable. Treating the elderly with genuine respect, truly listening to them and valuing their contributions, is an essential part of what it mean to be a “holy people.”
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.