Take a ride on a public bus in Jerusalem, and you will see a good part of your answer. There will be a sign up that quotes a verse from the Bible (Leviticus, 19:32): "Before the white head (i.e., a person with white hair from old age) you should rise." This verse doesn't just tell you to give up your prime seat for the elderly - it continues: "...and you should give respect to the elderly. You shall fear the Lord, I am your God." One way to read this is, just as you should have respect and fear for God, so you should have respect for the elders.
Indeed, in the earliest Jewish traditions, our wisest sages and judges were referred to simply by the term 'Zekeinim' - which translates simply to 'elders.' Thus it can be assumed that with age, comes wisdom - and what is to be honored more than wisdom?
If you look at a number of our biblical stories, you will note than many of our ancestors did their best 'work' in their old age. Abraham and Sarah were given a child in their 90s (actually, Abraham was older), and Jacob reconciles with Esau after a very rocky youth, midrashically, Moses is around 80 when he is sent to deliver the people from Egypt and there are countless other examples. Rabbinic literature is filled with numerous examples of elderly sages imparting their wisdom, and of people who have been rewarded for respecting and honoring their elderly parents. There are too many examples to recount here, so I turn you back to the original biblical source. Why should we respect the elderly? Because you shall fear the Lord - I am YOUR God!
Jewish tradition is suffused with sacred obligations regarding the aged. Perhaps the most basic and prevailing direction we follow is taken from the Holiness Code of Leviticus – Leviticus 19:32 – which instructs, “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall revere [fear?] your God, I am the Eternal.” The implications of this law are clear: recognition of the place of the aged, and demonstration of respect for age and life/world experience.
One may think that “rising” and “showing deference” connotes the same thing. But “rising” is simply an act that can feign deference without actually doing something about it. “Showing deference” (from the Hebrew root h-d-r, which can mean “beautify” or “glorify”) represents intentional actions that take place between people, and adhering to this mitzvah (sacred obligation) requires positive actions in order to fulfill it. What this means is that our approach to the aging is two-fold: attitudinal and behavioral. And the more that we work on both fronts, the more profound will be our impact on society.
The Torah has many other references to support for the elderly, especially alluding to their experience and wisdom. Primarily notable are the references to the 70 elders who accompanied Moses on part of his journey to the summit of Mt. Sinai, and who continued to be counselors, advisors, judges, and consultants to Moses and the Israelites during their journey in the desert. These “elders” (‘z’keinim’ in Hebrew) had experience and wisdom to help the people make progress, and their years of being present for the people stand as a clear example of the qualities that a person of experience must have.
Texts that refer to the talents of the elderly come from Pirkei Avot, the wisdom of our Rabbinic Sages. Judah ben Teima [in 5:24] said this about age progression: “At five years old a person should study the Bible, at ten years the Mishnah, at thirteen be ready for the commandments, at fifteen study the Talmud, at eighteen for the bridechamber, at twenty for one's life pursuit, at thirty for authority, at forty for discernment, at fifty for counsel, at sixty to be an elder, at seventy for gray hairs, at eighty for special strength (Psalm 90:10), at ninety for decrepitude, and at a hundred a man is as one who has already died and has ceased from the affairs of this world.” Rabbi Judah’s approach seems to be that, as one approaches old age, s/he attains certain intellectual and emotional strength; perhaps there is the suggestion that we need to show deference to those attaining these age mileposts.
But he also suggests that there is an end to one’s effectiveness, and this is not necessarily the case in our day. Today, perhaps 1,800 years after Rabbi Judah, we have learned much more about the healthy elderly and their special talents and skills. We have come to a societal consensus that age itself should no longer be a criterion for deference or for the end of it, and that each person’s skills should be assessed at face value.
We should still “rise before the aged and show deference to the old,” but perhaps there is, in our society, more that we should be doing.
This is a very difficult question to answer, because Judaism says so much about these matters that it would take at least one massive book to give a full response. What I share with you is a mere speck in the ocean on this topic.
Judaism venerates wisdom and sagacity. This simple observation tells you much about veneration of the elderly. The elderly cannot play golf or baseball as well as the young, but the older they get, the more wisdom they acquire. If wisdom is the guage, then age is beauty. The more we age, the more fruitful in wisdom we become.
In Jewish law, we rise in the presence of the wise, and we rise in the presence of the elderly, uusually defined as over 70. This is not lip service, this is facts on the ground. We respect our parents, we by definition respect our grandparents, etc. The system is built on this notion. One great sage who "made it" at a relatively young age had to "grow old" quickly in order to be properly respected!
Not everyone who ages becomes wiser, intellectually or behaviorally. Dementia is a plague that affects close to 10 percent of the population. The rules of respect govern all the aged, including those afflicted with dementia.
The shattered tablets containing the Ten Statements were placed in the ark together with the intact second set, as if to accentuate that one whose reality is shattered remains holy.
Respect, veneration, admiration - these are the basic parameters within which we approach aging, the aged, and the treatment of the elderly. The rest is commentary.
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