“Respect for Elders”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The double portions of Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim together contain a total of 79 mitzvot, more than one seventh of all the mitzvot in the Torah. In the second of this week’s double parashiot, parashat Kedoshim, one of the most fundamental societal laws is pronounced–showing respect to elders.

In Leviticus 19:32, the Torah states, “Mip’nay say’vah tah’koom, v’hah’dar’tah p’nay zah’kayn, v’yah’ray’tah may’Eh’lo’keh’cha, Ah’nee Hashem,” In the presence of an old person you shall rise, and you shall honor the presence of a sage, and you shall revere your G-d, I am the L-rd.

Citing the Talmud in Kedushin 32b, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) explains that the two halves of this verse actually explain each other. Rashi therefore concludes that there is a mitzvah to rise before and honor a sage who is both elderly and righteous.

On the other hand, the Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh De’ah 244:1) explains this verse as two separate mitzvot. One mitzvah is to rise for, and honor, anyone over the age of seventy, even if the person is not learned. The other, is to rise for an honored sage, even if the person is young. The Code of Jewish Law thereby proclaims that not only must one who is older be respected, but so too is one required to revere a young person who is superior in wisdom and learning.

Both Rashi and the Code of Jewish Law describe the manner in which one is to display respect. One is not permitted to sit in the seat of an elder, or contradict his counsel. Even an old man must rise when a sage passes by.

The Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) comments on this verse by citing the expression, “As one sows, so shall he reap.” The Ibn Ezra implies that one who is disrespectful to the elderly, will be disrespected himself upon reaching old age.

The Alshich (a popular commentary on the bible by R’ Moshe Alshich of Safed, 1508-1593) explains that those who do not respect the counsel of their elders, often deprive themselves of the wise advice that would have helped them in their times of plight. Because young people think that they hardly need the advice of the elderly, the Torah warns that G-d is likely to change their circumstances, so that they will not be able to cope with their difficult challenges.

The Recanati (1250-1310, Menachem ben Benjamin, an Italian rabbi and commentator, who devoted the chief part of his writings to the Kabbalah) explains that peace in the world is sustained only by the intelligence of man, which is incorporated into the very person of the sage. By respecting the wise person, we are respecting G-d and His creation, that is maintained by the characteristic virtues of the wise.

The Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author, possibly Aaron HaLevi, in 13th century Spain) maintains that it is only through wisdom that people can properly appreciate G-d and worship Him. Hence, it is the human being’s purpose in life to acquire more and more wisdom. Those who are aged have surely accumulated a great deal of wisdom from the great number of experiences in their lives, and are likely to know full well what is right and what is wrong. It is for these reasons that the elderly must be respected.

The Code of Jewish Law underscores the nuances in the rules governing one’s actions toward the sage and the wise person. Despite the Torah requirement to honor the wise and the elderly, it is most appropriate for a person to honor his or her principal instructor (Rabbo Muvhak), the person whom he considers his primary mentor, to whom he must show total respect and reverence at all times. Therefore, unless one’s father is also one’s principal teacher, the teacher’s respect takes priority over respect for the parents. Thus, if one finds a lost object of one’s teacher and a lost object of one’s parent (who is not his principal teacher), he must return his teacher’s lost object first. The reason for this, the sages suggest, is that while a parent brings a child into this physical world, the teacher’s lessons sustain the child both in this world and in the World to Come. That is why, when a primary teacher dies, the teacher’s disciples are expected to rend their garments in mourning, as they would for a close relative.

Our rabbis suggest that according filial respect and honoring elders are the fundamental building blocks of a healthy society, without which the world would soon revert to a state of chaos.

May you be blessed.

This Sunday, May 6th is Pesach Shay’nee, the second Passover. Click here to find out why a second Passover was ordained, who celebrated it in ancient times, and how it is commemorated today.