Acharei Mot Kedoshim
“Thou shalt rise up before the gray-haired person and honor the elderly man.”
This text probably doesn’t jump off the page at you as teaching something extraordinary, but it should. That it doesn’t is a tribute to the effect that biblical doctrine has had upon the life
and thought of mankind. There are many lessons the Torah introduced to the world that we like to feel we were born knowing. Secular humanism relies on the idea that mankind on its own can create a kind, just, fair society based on our unique human ability to seek out and do good. A bit of research, however, into ancient societies (and some modern ones as well) that haven’t been exposed to biblical lessons and values should give us pause.
When the concept of reverence for the aged was first enunciated, it was, in fact, an entirely new message to humanity. Other races in antiquity relieved the tribe of the burden of the aged by putting them to death, sometimes a horrible death, such as being given over to savage dogs to be devoured or being left deserted to starve, or being sacrificed to the gods, or being expected to commit suicide at a given age and so on. Into a world where atrocities such as these took place came the Divine command to “rise up before the gray-haired person and honor the elderly man.”
It was truly a revelation, not only because it taught a spirit of mercy and protested against cruelty, but because it also placed an entirely different assessment on human life. The Torah commands us to honor the aged because life is sacred, and therefore one who is full of years should be respected and treated with deference.
The old man is weak and infirm; his physical powers have waned. He requires help and sympathy from those who are young and vigorous and strong. The old man is also generally regarded as wise because he has studied where youth cannot study — in the “school of experience.”
In other ancient races, life was looked at from a completely different angle. A man was respected and valued for one thing only: might, power, valor in battle. As long as a man possessed these, he was esteemed, and his life was worthwhile to the community. The strong man could hunt successfully to ensure the food supply, and he could ward off enemies. His physical strength spent, with advancing years rendered him not only useless, but worse, a drain on the resources of the community. He was a burden to be rid of.
The Torah demanded that a person not be evaluated by the might of his flesh, but by the might of his spirit. The Israelites were, in fact, ruled by elders (zekeinim) because of the characteristic feature of age — discernment leading to justice, and not by the characteristic feature of the young: impulse. So far from being thought of as useless to the community, the aged were accorded the highest dignity.
Interestingly, as related in the Talmud Berachot 28a, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was only 18 years old when he was appointed to be the head of the Sanhedrin. Because of his very youthful appearance, there was a concern that the masses would not properly respect him. So a miracle occurred and his beard turned white overnight.
Our modern age, sadly, appears to have deteriorated in this matter. Those who are young look with a degree of contempt at their elders. Modern youth is in some ways returning to the spirit of primitive times. Of course, no one is advocating killing off everyone over the age of 60, but the elderly are often considered a nuisance or an impediment.
This is a return to the mentality of savagedom from which the world was rescued by biblical teaching. Well, youth passes and passes quickly. The young will in their day be old, so they would do well to take heart the Golden Rule of Hillel: “What would be hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow man.” (Talmud Shabbat 31a.)
Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.