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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chayei Sarah: Honour and respect the elderly
My late father used to say that nowadays there are no old people; there are only young people in all ages. "Abraham was old." In modern society the young rarely honour the adults and there is a lack of respect for authority. Abraham was the first one to show signs of aging. It was Abraham's love for other people that brought him to request the signs of old age. "You shall rise for an old person, and you shall honour the presence of a sage." The Torah teaches us to have utmost respect for our parents and elders. The differences in the outcomes of the gathering at Mount Sinai and the gathering concerning the spies speak for themselves. As Abraham's descendants, we will be a light to the nations as we show honour and respect to those who deserve it.
No old people
We live in a time when many people dread getting old and everyone would be happy if they could avoid the signs of aging. The general feeling is that it would be the ideal lifestyle if we could advance in years without any change to our physical appearance. My late father used to say that nowadays there are no old people; there are only young people in all ages. The ladies are especially concerned and worried about the aging process. Many spend huge amounts and undergo painful surgery such as facelifts to retain a youthful appearance. Even those who will not go to that extreme frequent the makeup counters that abound all over to make an effort to appear as youthful as possible. But the men are also aware of their appearance and try to make themselves look younger than their real age. Therefore, many older people will dress in the same fashion as younger people in an attempt to look as young as possible. In this way our society idolizes the look of the youth.
"Abraham was old"
The Torah's approach to old age is very different. In this week's Parasha (Bereishis 24:1) it says: "And Abraham was old." The Yalkut Shimoni (paragraph 105) states that Abraham actually requested of G'd that people should age. Till then one could not assess anyone's age by their appearance. From the Midrash Rabbah (54:10) on last week's Parasha, we learn that just like Adam and Eve were created as fully developed adults, so every child that was born after the creation immediately developed into a grownup adult, and that is how they remained the rest of their life. This might explain what the Midrash teaches that Rivkah was only three years old at the time that Eliezer met her at the well, as related later in this week's Parasha. The obvious question arises, why would Abraham spoil what appears to us to be the ideal world? Why did he oppose that people stayed youthful all their life? However, if we analyze modern-day society, we may be able to appreciate the rationale behind Abraham's request.
Lack of honour and respect
It is no secret that in modern society the young rarely honour the adults and there is a lack of respect for authority. This malady is closely connected to the idolization of the youth. In earlier generations, most households centered on the husband and father, who was looked up to as the master of the house. Nowadays, this has changed drastically. In most families, everything centers on the children and their schedules. Often the parents have been degraded to chauffeurs who carpool their children to and from school, as well as an assortment of activities. On top of that many parents and grandparents try to emulate their teenagers, both in dress, language and conduct. When the children grow up with this, it sends them a message that they are the most important members of society. Obviously, if that is so, they do not feel that they owe any honour or respect to those that "serve" them and often try to copy them. This situation was already described in detail in the Talmud. The Mishnah (Sotah 49b) says: "In the time prior to the coming of Mashiach, there will be an abundance of chutzpah … The government will be corrupt. No one will be able to rebuke … The young will put the elders to shame and the old will have to stand up for the young ones. The son will be disrespectful to his father and the daughter will rise against her mother, as will the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. The son will not even be ashamed in front of his father."
Abraham first to show signs of aging
Abraham realized that without the signs of aging, the young would not show honour and respect to the old. The Midrash relates that Abraham said to G'd: "Master of the universe, when a father and son enter a place no one will know who to honour. G'd answered and said, 'You are right. You request a good thing, and you will be the first one.'" The Midrash continues to point out that from the beginning of Bereishis until this week's parasha there is no mention of old age in the Torah. Abraham was the first one to show signs of aging. As it says, "And Abraham was old."
In the merit of Abraham
Obviously, Abraham did not bring something up that G'd had not thought of in advance. Rather, G'd wanted to give Abraham the opportunity of introducing this important development into the world. Already at the time of Creation, the Torah hints that the world was created for the sake of Abraham. In Bereishis (2:4) it says: "These are the generations of the Heaven and the Earth when they were created." The Hebrew word for "when they were created" is Beheebare'am. The Midrash says that the letters of this word can be re-arranged to spell Be-Avraham, meaning "in the merit of Abraham." The world only achieved its purpose through Abraham's love for G'd and for his fellow human beings. Rabbi E.E. Dessler explains that it was Abraham's love for other people that brought him to request the signs of old age, in order that people should receive the honour and respect that they deserved. With his keen understanding of the purpose of the world, Abraham merited to request what G'd had intended all along.
Rise for an old person
In Parashas Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:32) we are commanded: "You shall rise for an old person, and you shall honour the presence of a sage." The Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) discusses the meaning of this verse. Based on this discussion, the Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah (244:1) rules that one is obligated to rise for a sage, even if he is young, and for an elderly person who has turned seventy, even if he is an ignoramus, provided that he is not an evil person. The reason for this is that any elderly person deserves honour and respect due to their life experience, even if they are not Torah scholars. This is what the Torah advises us later in Parashas Haazinu (Devarim 32:7) where it says: "Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will speak to you."
Closer to the Revelation
The attitude in the secular world is often that the young generation, with their advanced knowledge of science and technology, know more and understand better than the old one. This obviously does not promote honour and respect for the elders of society. On the other hand, the Torah teaches us to have utmost respect for our parents and elders. The mere fact that they are closer to the Revelation at Mount Sinai, and they have experienced in their lifetime what no young person has yet been through, give them the ability to see and evaluate situations in a more mature light (see Torah Attitude: Parashas Devarim: No respect, no consistency August 10, 2005).
Mount Sinai and spies
Rashi (Devarim 1:22) quotes the Sifri (Devarim 20) that points out the difference between situations where the young show respect for their elders and when they do not. In Parashas Devarim (1:22), Moses rebukes the Jewish people in regards to sending the spies. He says: "And all of you approached me and said, 'Let us send men ahead of us.'" On the other hand, in Parashas Va'Eschanan (Devarim 5:20) Moses discusses the Revelation at Mount Sinai and says: 'And it was when you heard the Voice [of G'd] … and all the heads of your tribes and your elders came forward to me." Says the Sifri, by Mount Sinai the young ones honoured their elders and let them go ahead, and the elders honoured the leaders of the tribes, but at the time when they wanted to send the spies, everyone came together, the young ones pushed aside the elders, and the elders pushed ahead of the leaders. The differences in the outcomes of those two gatherings speak for themselves.
Show honour and respect
Abraham had a clear vision of what mankind needs to succeed. As his descendants, it is our privilege to follow in his footsteps and live up to his ideals. In this way, we will be a light to the nations as we show honour and respect to those who deserve it.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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