More than gestures

More than gestures

Kedoshim | Leviticus 19:1-20:27

'I get no respect’.

I once began a discussion with a group of seniors by asking: “What made you first realize that you were getting older?” 

There were two sets of responses. One was, “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.”

But others expressed something different. One gentleman said, “I knew I was getting older when passengers on the bus stood up and gave me their seat.” 

But while these seniors appreciated this basic gesture of respect — and while they certainly did not want to be ignored — they were also resentful of such deference. “We don’t want gestures of respect,” said one. “We want genuine respect.”

They wanted more: They wanted their opinions to be heard, their life experiences to be appreciated, and their accumulated wisdom to be acknowledged. 

Kedoshim contains the 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.” (19:32)

Here is what Rashi 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.”

Not sitting in his seat means more than 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. It is more than a gesture; it is an acknowledgement of the valued place the elder has in society.

Similarly, not interrupting the older person’s conversation is more than courtesy. It is awareness that this older person has a valuable message one must listen to attentively.

We can easily pretend not to notice the older person, but He who reads our minds and knows what is in our hearts will be the judge of that. 

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin refers to a passage in the Midrash Rabba that understands the phrase “You shall fear your God” as the consequence of showing deference to the elderly. Thus, if you treat the elderly well, you will attain the spiritual level of the God-fearing person.

Another perspective provides a practical motive for honoring the elderly. It is found in the commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra, who explains “You shall fear your God” as: “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.”

Treating the elderly with genuine respect, truly listening to them, and valuing their contributions, is an essential part of what it means to be a “holy people.”

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