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Torah Attitude: Parashas Devarim: No respect, no consistency
The gathering at the sending of the spies and the gathering at the time of the revelation at Mount Sinai were different. At the gathering sending the spies, the young ones pushed the older ones aside, and the older ones went ahead of the leaders. Just as a bird cannot fly without its wings, so can the Jewish nation not stand without its elders. Young people with a lack of life experience often get enthusiastic and idealistic without realizing the consequences. Elders are not necessarily old people, but rather learned, knowledgeable Torah scholars. Unlike flowers, every child is born with a set of parents. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky told the one travelling next to him that as far as his descendants are concerned he was just one generation closer to the apes than they are. Teenagers see their parents try to copy them, dress like them, talk like them and act as if they are contemporaries. Abraham saw that it was destructive for the world if they could not distinguish between father and son. The worst of the 18 curses issued by Yeshayah was "And the young ones will rule over the elders." The inconsistency between the two approaches is the biggest rebuke, says the Kli Yakar. The first seed that caused our long and bitter exile was when the youngsters at the time pushed ahead at the sending of the spies.
The Book of Devarim begins with this week's Parasha. In this Book, Moses rebukes the Jewish people before he passes away. He recalls the various incidents throughout their sojourn in the desert in a final attempt to ensure that in the future they will listen to the words of G'd and His messengers. One of the incidents that Moses mentions is the sending of the spies. Moses says, (Devarim 1:22) "And all of you approached me and you said, 'Let us send men ahead of us that they should spy out the land.'" Rashi quotes the Sifri who points out the difference between this gathering and the gathering at the time of the revelation at Mount Sinai. There it says (ibid 5:2) "And it was when you heard the voice in the midst of the darkness And all the heads of your tribes and your elders approached me."
At Mount Sinai, the young showed respect to the older ones and let them go ahead. And the older ones honoured the leaders making sure that they should be in the front of the gathering. In contrast, at the gathering requesting Moses to send the spies the conduct was disorderly. The young ones pushed the older ones aside and the older ones went ahead of the leaders.
Not stand without elders
The Talmud (Nedarim 40a) says, "If youngsters tell you to build and elders advise you not to build, (literally to tear down), listen to the elders, rather than to the youngsters. For the building of the young is destruction, whereas the tearing down of the elders is construction." The Talmud brings an example of King Rechavom, son of King Solomon, related in the Book of Kings (I 12), who disregarded the advice of the elders and instead listened to the young advisors. Rashi explains that the disastrous consequences of the young advisors' folly led to the destruction of the Temple. This corresponds to the words of Rabbi Akiva in the Midrash Rabba (Shemos 5:12): "Why is the Jewish nation compared to a bird? Just as a bird cannot fly without its wings, so can the Jewish nation not manage without its elders."
Young people with a lack of life experience often get enthusiastic and idealistic without realizing the consequences. In youthful eagerness and self-confidence they jump into situations where they are unable to control the outcome. However well-meaning they may be and however worthy their cause may be, there is great danger with their youthful approach when they neglect the wisdom of the elders. They can never measure up to the elders who with their extensive life experience will know how to avoid the pitfalls of what the youngsters are not even aware of.
The Midrash continues that the elders are not necessarily old people, but rather learned, knowledgeable Torah scholars as explained in the Talmud (Kiddushin 32b). These leaders are guided not by their own ideas or interests, but by the word of G'd. However, the Talmud (ibid 33a) teaches that even the older person who is not a scholar should be respected and honoured due to the fact that he has acquired a lot of life experience.
Flowers have no parents
I recall as a child walking with my mother one Shabbos morning on the way to shul when she showed me some flowers growing in a garden. She pointed out that it is interesting that human beings theoretically could have been created just like a flower coming out of the ground. However, G'd in His infinite wisdom saw to it that every child is born with a set of parents. She went on to explain that the reason for this is that every person requires parental guidance to develop fully and properly.
Close to monkeys or G'd?
In the past, young people often left the paths of their parents, eager to join any new movement that tried to revolutionize society with new ideals. However, nowadays the problem of children not listening to their parents and going their own way has multiplied manifold. There is a famous anecdote about the great Torah sage, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, who was once travelling on a plane with his son and granddaughter. Next to him was the Secretary-General of the Israeli Trade Federation, Histadrut. As related in the book, Reb Yaakov: His Life, pp.218-219, the Secretary-General was amazed at the dedication of the son and granddaughter to the elderly rabbi. "He confided sadly to Reb Yaakov that he almost never saw his grandchildren and his children only rarely. Rab Yaakov explained to him that the difference in their relationships to their children and grandchildren could be traced to their differing views of Creation 'You believe in the Darwinian view of life as the result of random, purposeless events,' he told [him], 'so as far as your descendants are concerned you're just one generation closer to the apes than they are. We, on the other hand, do not believe that we are superior to our ancestors. Quite the contrary. For us the central event in history was the Revelation at Sinai. The generations immediately after that Revelation lived in awe of their parents as people to whom G'd actually spoke. And their children in turn viewed them with veneration for having known those who heard G'd speak. And so it is with each passing generation. My children and grandchildren honour me as one who had contact with spiritual giants whose greatness is almost beyond their comprehension, and therefore they attribute to me a wisdom and spiritual sensitivity that they do not possess."
There is, however, more to it. We live in a time when children are educated to become self-centered and therefore feel that everything is owing to them. In earlier generations, the centre of the household would be the father. The breakdown of traditional family values has changed all of this. Going back a generation or two, parents had authority in the house and were able in general to discipline their children. Today, a mother sits with her toddler asking him what he wants to eat, and discusses with her young daughter what she would like to wear. A little while later the same mother will complain that her children do not listen to her and instead tell her what to do. Rather than educating the children to know their duties and obligations as espoused by the Torah, they are being taught their rights and made to feel that they are in control. Add to this the idolization of youthful appearance. Teenagers see their parents try to copy them, dress like them, talk like them and act as if they are contemporaries. So how can we expect them to honour and respect the ones who try to be like them?
The Talmud (Baba Metzia 87a) relates that till the time of our Patriarch Abraham people did not age. Abraham saw that it was destructive for the world if they could not distinguish between father and son. The Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 55:9) tells us that Abraham requested from G'd, "Master of the Universe, a person comes with his son to a place and no one knows to whom to give honour. If you adorn the father with age then people will know who to honour." G'd said to him, "You are right. You are asking for a good thing and I will start with you." As it says (Bereishis 24:1), "And Abraham become old with age."
Abraham was not looking for personal honour and gains. However, he understood that for the constructive development of society it was important that the young ones should honour their elders. Age is supposed to be a sign of dignity and authority. Nowadays people spend thousands of dollars to reverse the aging trend in a vain attempt to appear youthful and dress and act accordingly. It is amazing that we were actually warned by our prophets and sages that in the time prior to the coming of the Mashiach the lack of respect for elders will be the biggest curse and calamity of that period. The Talmud (Chagigah 14a) relates that the Prophet Yeshayah warns the Jews at his time of the curses that would befall them if they did not listen to the word of G'd. 18 curses were issued by Yeshayah, the worst of which says the Talmud, was (Yeshayah 3:5) "And the young ones will rule over the elders." Similarly, the sages of the Mishnah (Sotah 49b) describe the calamities of the time before the coming of Mashiach: "The youngsters will put the elders to shame. The elders will have to rise for the young ones. A son despises his father. A daughter rises against her mother Who do we have to rely on? Only our Father in heaven." The Mishnah gives us an exact description of our generation. We have developed into a situation where the young have totally lost their respect for their parents and elders who are powerless to change the situation. The older generation themselves is at fault for giving their children this power. Only G'd Himself can reverse this situation.
The Kli Yakar explains that the difference between the two gatherings approaching Moses, one at the time of Mount Sinai and the other at the time of the sending of the spies, is part of Moses' rebuke to the Jewish people. If the young people were so eager when it came to conquer the land and to take possession of it, why were they not equally eager to come forward to accept the Torah and its commandments? If youthful excitement would push respect aside why did that not show itself at Mount Sinai? The inconsistency between the two approaches indicates that taking possession of the land was more important to the young ones than accepting the Torah. This inconsistency is the biggest rebuke, says the Kli Yakar for it shows a lack of understanding of the uniqueness of the Jewish people and why the Land of Israel is so special to us. G'd chose us to be the nation that fulfills His will as expressed in the Torah. And He presented us with the Holy Land as it is the only place in the world where we can observe all His commandments.
The Kli Yakar concludes that the first seed that caused our long and bitter exile was when the youngsters pushed ahead at the time of the sending of the spies. As it says in Tehillim (106:24) "And they despised the desirable land. They had no faith in His word And He lifted His hand to throw them down in the desert and to throw down their descendants among the peoples and to scatter them amongst the lands." This misplaced eagerness, rather than facilitating taking possession of the land of Israel, caused the death of that generation and the delay for 40 years before the Jewish nation was allowed to enter the Holy Land. Subsequently, it caused the destruction of the Temple and the mourning throughout the generations on Tisha B'Av, the very same night the spies had returned.
On Tisha B'Av, when we sit on the ground and mourn the destruction of the Temple and our exile, it is a time to reflect on our fragile situation. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. The words of the prophet Jeremiah (Eichah 5:1-2) speak for themselves: "Remember G'd what has happened to us, look and see our disgrace. Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our houses to foreigners." Let us unite, not just in communal mourning, but in constructive prayer and resolve that this shall be the last Tisha B'Av that is a day of mourning. Let us undertake to do everything possible to merit the coming of Mashiach who will rectify all evils for the Jewish people and the whole world, and turn this day into a festival to be celebrated with great joy.
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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