Respect for Age & Wisdom
by Deanna Chart
In this day and age, society appears to idolise youth, beauty and sporting prowess and often age and experience are side-lined. What does Judaism have to say about such attitudes? It says this in the Torah:
Rise up before grey hairs and honour the face of the elder and stand in awe of your G-d; I am G-d. (Leviticus 19:32)
A civilization is known by its attitudes to youth and old age. A civilization which values above all the body and the pleasures of the body will venerate youth and despise – and fear – old age. A civilization which values the mind and the spirit, however, will respect the accumulated wisdom of years.
Here is another relevant quote from the Ethics of the Fathers (chapter 5):
One who learns Torah from the young, to what can he be likened? To one who eats unripe grapes or drinks unfermented wine from his vat. One who learns Torah from the old, to what can he be likened? To one who eats ripe grapes and drinks mature wine.”
The Torah is a civilization of the mind. It does not deny or despise the body, but above all it values the mind and the spirit. The Torah Sage personifies the wisdom of the Torah. “How foolish,” says the Talmud, “to stand up before the Sefer Torah when it is paraded in the synagogue, and not to stand up before the Sage!” The Sage is the living embodiment of the Torah.
We have to rise before everyone distinguished in Torah learning even if he or she is not old, and before every old person, even if he or she is not learned because of the wisdom gained in the school of life. But even an old person and a wise one should rise before someone who gives a shining example of good deeds and uprightness.
The act of standing up before someone we respect indicates symbolically our readiness to be of service to him.
When we see an outstanding Torah Sage of exceptional renown, the Rabbis have prescribed the following bracha (blessing):
ברוך אתה ה' אשר חלק את חוכמתו עם מי שמחזיק אתה ביראת כבוד
Here it is in English: “Blessed are You G-d, Who has shared His wisdom with those who hold Him in awe.”
Here is a poignant example from life today. Whenever we travel by train or bus, rarely do we find that people give up their seats for the elderly. The worst “offenders” are children, whose parents encourage them to sit beside them instead of giving them proper instruction to let the older person (or an adult who is not elderly) have their seat. We cannot, however, blame the children, who are lacking guidance. Unfortunately, they are not taught respect for their elders. The next generation will surely be lost to the cause.
Another modern example is age discrimination in the workplace and the media, where age, experience and wisdom are not acknowledged as they should be. The reader should be able to cite other examples to illustrate the point.
Based loosely on a chapter of the book by Aryeh Carmell, called “Masterplan – Judaism: its program, meanings, goals”