Appreciating Our Elders
When we're young, we can feel like we don't have much in common with older people, and maybe not much to learn from them either. But in this week's portion, God teaches us that older people deserve our attention - and our respect. They have a lot of life wisdom, and give us a connection to what were in many ways the greater days of the past.
In our story, we meet a kid who gets a new perspective on old age.
"SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW"
I felt both guilty and relieved as I watched my parents begin to pack up our minivan. They were getting ready to visit Grandpa later in the afternoon at the old age home. As usual they wanted me to go along, but this time I told them I wasn't coming with them. My parents were disappointed, and I knew Grandpa would be too, but I just couldn't do it this time. I hated to admit it, but I just found old people so, you know, boring. I like things new and exciting, lots of action. And let's face it - old people are not like that at all. Besides, I had big plans. There was a special hi-tech exhibit at the science museum - talk about new and exciting - and my buddies and I had planned to go check it out. They had the latest computer equipment on display, and there was even supposed to be a robot that could clean a whole room - I could sure use one of those.
I got there first and waited for the other guys to show up. After a few minutes, something unusual caught my eye. It seemed like some celebrity or something arrived, because there was this old man being followed around by about a whole bunch of kids who couldn't do enough for him. One kid brought him a drink, another was carrying his coat, someone else brought him a chair, and even brushed it off before he sat down!
'He must be really big,' I thought. Maybe he's a famous actor or some billionaire sports team owner. My pals hadn't shown up, so I figured I'd move closer and try to get a piece of the action.
As I got closer, I could see that the kids were from the local Torah School. I nudged up to one of them, and whispered, "Who is he?"
I guess I didn't speak clearly, because the kid gave me a funny look, and said, "I'm sorry - I don't know what you mean."
I explained, "I can see from the way you're all fawning over this old man that he must be someone important, like, you know, a celebrity. So who is he?"
The kid nodded his head, and I thought he was trying to cover up a smile. "Well, you're right," he said, "He's someone very important, but not like you think. He's our great grandfather and almost 90 years old."
I didn't get it, and I guess the kid could tell because he went on to explain. "You see we learned in our school how important it is to show respect for older people."
"Well first of all, anyone who has lived so long has seen and done a lot, and picked up a lot of life wisdom along the way. When I hear an older person tell a story about what life was like when he was our age, I feel like I'm getting a living history class. But more than that, we learned that the way God designed the world is that in each generation you go back, people were greater and wiser."
"But we have so many new things today that they didn't," I objected.
"Maybe they didn't have all the high-tech we do," he said, pointing toward the exhibit, "but they didn't need it - their brains were already high-tech. So when we get a chance to be with an elderly person, we do all we can to show him respect, and learn from him. Get it?"
Meanwhile the old man had started to get up from his rest and move on, so the kid apologized to me, and jumped up to follow him. I thought about what he said. I had never looked at it that way, but I had to admit, the kid made sense. Maybe old people did deserve more respect than they get.
I watched the 'great grandfather' make his way down the aisle, surrounded by his admirers, and thought about my own lonely Grandpa, and how I wasn't even making him important enough in my life to pay an occasional visit.
"Hey Jay, where have you been hiding?" called out one of my buddies from across the museum lobby. "C'mon, let's go and check out all the great new stuff."
"Sorry," I said. "Something's come up and I have to catch my parents before they leave. I've gotta go with them to see someone who may not be new - but is definitely great."
Q. How did Jay feel at first about older people?
A. He felt like they weren't interesting, and he didn't want to spend time with them.
Q. How did he feel after talking to the kid in the museum?
A. He realized that older people have a lot of wisdom, and deserve our respect and attention.
Q. Why is it important to show respect to the elderly?
A. First and foremost, it's the right thing to do - God told us so. Besides this, they deserve it. They have lived through a lot, overcome many challenges and gained valuable life experience. They are a link to our past and the keepers of our traditions. We can save ourselves from making a lot of mistakes by listening to what they have to say. When we connect with older people, we are doing ourselves an even bigger favor than we are doing them.
Q. How do you explain why the kids at the museum were treating their great grandfather differently than the way Jay was treating his?
A. It all has to do with the way they were looking at things. Jay saw his grandfather as a burden, someone who merely took up his valuable time and prevented him from being with his friends. The kids in the museum realized that older people have a lot of experience and wisdom that younger people generally lack, and saw their great grandfather as someone they could learn from and was worthy of their greatest respect.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Would you say that the world is becoming more or less advanced as time goes on?
A. It depends. In certain ways, such as material comfort, and technology, we are way above past generations, yet spiritually and intellectually, we are at a far lower level than our predecessors. When one studies the Torah and its commentaries, and reads the original writings of great people from decades, centuries, and even millennia ago, he becomes awed with their depth of thought, sensitivity of spirit, and encyclopedic knowledge, each generation freely admitting that the previous ones were even greater than they. One gets an inkling of this when meeting with great Torah scholars of today, whose lives spanned the previous generation as well. Or, to paraphrase a recent Torah leader: when you see each previous generation as being one step closer to great spiritual giants, rather than one step closer to apes, you start to see your grandparents from a different perspective.
Q. But if they were so much wiser than we, how is it that we have invented more?
A. If you substitute the word discover for invent, the answer becomes clearer. All of the secrets of the physical world are known to God since He made them. He chooses, according to His plan, when it is appropriate to make them known to humankind. Besides this, we have a tradition that our sages were able to accomplish many things by spiritual means, for which today we need physical 'inventions.' It could simply be that they were content with their lives - rich in spiritual content as they were, and simply didn't feel a need to devise ways to make themselves more comfortable.