Back in my day, society accorded honor to the elderly. But it seems that today, with all the 25-year-old billionaires running the show, the elderly have been thrown to the back of the bus. As a Jew and a grandma, I find this attitude offensive. What says the rabbi?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Judaism emphasizes the tradition that is handed down from one generation to the next. The Talmudic tractate "Pirkei Avot" begins by telling us that Moses – after receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai – transmitted its teachings to Joshua, and from Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Great Assembly. We constantly credit our preceding generations with the wisdom upon which our entire way of life is based.
The Torah specifically instructs us to "honor the elderly" (Leviticus 19:32). On public buses in Israel, for example, the first row of seats is marked with a sign quoting this verse. That is because every old person is regarded as having a special wisdom that comes with life experience.
Humans are made up of two parts, physical and spiritual. The physical body allows the Divine soul to develop and to fulfill its role in the world. By the time a person reaches old age, the body begins to wear down. This enables the spiritual side to exert itself to an even greater degree. Based on this idea, the Talmud delineates the different stages of life: Age 30 is for peak physical strength, and age 80 is for peak spiritual strength. In the secular world, where physical strength and beauty is emphasized, a person at age 80 is regarded as having little value. In the Torah world, 80 is prime time!
I once met a man who was a professional bowler. He was experiencing a mid-life crisis, because his athletic career was basically over. He was depressed and couldn't imagine what he'd do with the rest of his life. Then he discovered the joys of learning Torah and he became a changed man. He said: "Now I have something to look forward to the rest of my life, an area where I can continue to improve and develop."
Spiritual strength has never been higher, as the person prepares for his or her return to the embrace of God. Judaism recognizes all this, and accords the elderly great respect as they near the completion of their missions on Earth. Just as a retiring executive is given a farewell party upon his completion of his job, people are celebrated as they near the ends of their missions on Earth as well.
Further, Judaism teaches us to honor even an old person who no longer possesses their full mental faculties. The source for this teaching is the Ten Commandment tablets that Moses shattered, which were kept alongside the new tablets in the Ark of the Covenant. It teaches that we must continue to respect the elderly, even when they are intellectually "broken."
There is a great power in being in the presence of old people. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) relates that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the editor of the Mishnah, attributed his own greatness to the fact that he had seen "the back" of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yehudah added, "Had I seen Rabbi Meir's front, I would have been even greater!"
The Talmud is teaching us something very deep. Rabbi Meir was the last of a great generation. What Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi said was, "At least I saw the tail end of a great generation. That made an indelible impression upon me. But my students did not see that. They never even saw the "back of Rabbi Meir."
If society’s determination of one's worth is based on the ability to dress fashionably or navigate cyberspace, then the "older generation" is setting itself up for failure in their children's eyes. Because in the long run, they will never be able to compete with the technology of the younger generation.
Why is it that respect for the elderly permeates Jewish life? The story is told of two grandfathers, one religious and one agnostic, who were having a chat. "I don't understand," said the agnostic. "My grandchildren don't respect me. They never come to visit. And when they do, it's only to borrow money or ask for a favor. But your grandchildren are different. They come to see you often, they sit at your feet while you share stories and thoughts, anxious to hear every word. What's the difference between you and me?"
"I'll tell you the difference," said the religious man. "I teach my grandchildren that I'm two generations closer to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. You teach your grandchildren that you're two generations closer to the ape from which you evolved."
One last point: Judaism accords special honor to grandparent, with the understanding that even more than the joy of having children is the joy of grandchildren. Why is this so?
Most creatures in the world have parent-child relationships – whether it is a mother lion protecting her cubs or a mother bird feeding her young. But only the human being has a concept of grandchildren, of perpetuation beyond a single generation. Being a grandparent is therefore an experience which connects us to our uniqueness as human beings. (This explains why Jacob, on his deathbed, blessed his grandchildren before blessing his children.)
Further, once one's children have grown up and start raising children of their own, then one begins to see how well his values have been transmitted. Far more than children, it is grandchildren who reveal the foundation and future direction of a family line. Interestingly, today in Jewish circles there is a popular saying: "The issue is not whether you have Jewish children, it's whether you'll have Jewish grandchildren."