Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20) An Unsung Mitzvah for the Young

“He’s so old that when he orders a three-minute egg, they ask for the money up front.” This gem from George Burns is one of the numerous jokes about aging but the sad part does not have to do with failing health, it is how old people are treated in our society. UCLA Professor Jered Diamond presented a lecture as part of the Molecular Medicine Institute Seminar series in which he focused on the lack of respect for old people in America. “In America,” Diamond said, “a ‘cult of youth’ and emphasis on the virtues of independence, individualism and self-reliance also make life hard on older people as they inevitably lose some of these traits. Then, there’s America’s Protestant work ethic, “which holds that if you’re no longer working, you’ve lost the main value that society places on you.” How can we change the way people view and interact with old people? Diamond advises us to “understand their changing strengths and weaknesses as they age and appreciate their deeper understanding of human relationships and their ability to think across wide-ranging disciplines, to strategize, and share what they’ve learned.”
Diamond’s observations and recommendations don’t know seem to be a realistic way to teach this to young people because simply telling people to appreciate certain traits older people possess is neither inspiring nor motivating; it’s hard to believe that high school or college students, and young professionals would make a 180% turn around in their attitude toward old people by simply being told to appreciate them. Fortunately, in this week’s Parsha, the Torah presents a more realistic solution.
You shall rise before an old person and you shall respect the elderly, and you shall fear your G-d. I am the Lord. (19:32)
One of the greatest contributions Jewish parents can give their children is a Jewish education. A child given the gift of education will know the above verse from a young age and it will remain part of his or her value system for life. But it is not merely an abstract idea, there are real actions that need to be done every time one encounters an elder. Rashi, quoting the Midrash and Talmud, asks, “What is meant by “respect” [the elderly]? One may not sit in their place, speak when they are speaking [i.e. when it is the elder’s turn to speak] …One is obligated to rise before the elderly when the latter comes within four cubits of where you are seated. These are outright obligations; there is no ambiguity. When one is accustomed from a young ago to stand up when an older person (i.e. 70 or older) comes within a few feet of where you are sitting, the idea of respecting older people is ingrained in you every time you do it. On a personal note, this practice had great impact on me when I was going through my own Jewish journey in college. Whenever I went to a Yeshiva or shul, I noticed how people stood up-sometimes in the middle of davening or studying-without regard to the elder’s level of scholarship or wealth. It was a powerful lesson to witness both scholarly venerated rabbis and people of great wealth standing when a simple elder came within a few feet of their space.
(Everything said until now also applies to parents. It is no surprise that respect for parents is also in decline. In Psychology Today Professor Jim Taylor writes, “NFL star Terrell Owens doing his outrageous touchdown dances. American Idol’s Simon Cowell humiliating well-intentioned-if untalented-singers. Hip-hop artists who demean women in their music. There is no shortage of forces in popular culture that resist your efforts to teach your children the value of respect. It can sometimes feel like you’re being overwhelmed by an onslaught of disrespect. Many parents I hear from feel that they are losing this battle for respect and, with it, their ability to positively influence their children. Many children I talk to don’t feel that their parents are relevant anymore.” According to Dr. Taylor, it is crucial for parents to make themselves relevant in their children’s lives. For us, that means that the more parents inculcate their children with Jewish values, the more relevant they will be.)
As with everything else in Judaism, the source of these actions-mitzvot-to bestow honor on elders (and parents), finds its origin in G-d. Rashi asked a question on the verse quoted above, which mentions the obligation to respect elders. “One might mistakenly think that he may close his eyes when the elder approaches, and pretend that he did not see him, thusly evading the obligation to rise before him. Therefore, Scripture adds here, “and you shall fear your G-d.” This matter is known only to the person who commits it…therefore Scripture says, “and you shall fear your God,” [for God knows a person’s thoughts].
The next time you are on a bus, in a lobby, or some other public place, try standing when an elder comes into your space. Better yet, give him or her your seat. Fiddler on the Roof or corned beef on rye might be more fun, but if you want a truly meaningful Jewish experience, get up and accord honor to those who deserve it.The great medieval authority Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) says that this commandment is an example of how the Torah commands us to “do the right and the straight in the eyes of G-d.” In other words, honoring elders is a fundamental ethical principle commanded by G-d. We do not honor older people because we want to be honored when we get old, we do it for a much higher calling; the merciful Creator of the universe told us to.
Rodney Dangerfield said, “I get no respect. When I was a kid, I lost my parents at the beach. I asked a lifeguard to help me find them. He said “I don’t know kid, there are so many places they could hide.” Sometimes kids hide from parents and sometimes, at a later stage in life, parents hide from their kids. We need to educate our children and we also need to educate ourselves so that we may be a model for them. If your children are already adults, you can still be an archetype for them to follow and if you don’t have children, you can be an example for everyone else.
Respect works; I have never met a person who goes out of his or her way to bestow honor and dignity to people who was not happy. May we all observe the mitzvah to concretely show honor to our parents and elders and to understand how crucial it is in the life of a Jew.