Ours is a society that glorifies youth as a sign of vitality, vigor, strength, and beauty. Television and pop cultural images are full of Hollywood celebrities and sports figures whose fame and fortune is based in their youthful look and/or talent, establishing themselves, for many, as national heroes. Lucky are the ones amongst them who continue into their later years gaining ongoing recognition and accolades as they mature and age. At the same time, however, despite the fact that more people are living longer and in good health than ever before, for many, older years are viewed only as good as the vigor of youth made them. So often we shun our elders, casting them away, assuming they are no longer valued or valuable.
Truth be told, the influence for this is not simply an outcome of modern pop culture. Even our own Jewish text and tradition expresses some of the ambivalence and challenges of aging, encapsulated by this poetic warning from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
So, rejoice your vigor and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know, that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. And remove sorrow from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh; for childhood and youth are vanity. Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw near, when you shall say, I have no pleasure in them; Before the sun, and the light, and the moon, and the stars are darkened, and the clouds return after the rain; When the guards of the house tremble, and the men of valor are bent, and the maids that grind, grown few, are idle, and the ladies that peer through the windows grow dim, And the doors are shut on the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low. Also, when they are afraid of that which is high, and fears are in the way, and the almond tree blossoms, and the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails; because man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets; Before the silver cord is removed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. And the dust returns to the earth as it was; and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
Is it any wonder then that some fear aging and shy away from it? Even within our own family and community, some of us turn from our elders allowing fears, hardships, anxiety, and risks of loss and dependency to govern how we interact. Yet, In the middle of what is known as the Holiness Code in this week's double Torah portion of Aharei Mot-Kedoshim, the Torah reminds us how important senior members of our community are, commanding 'You shall rise before the gray headed and honor/show deference to the face of an older person, and fear your God: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:32) The Talmud (Kiddushin 33a) understands a zaken, an older person to be zeh shekanah hochmah – this one who has acquired wisdom. Simply through living and experiencing, a person represents wisdom acquired with age, and this deserves our respect and honor. In modern terms, Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, "old age [should] not be regarded as the age of stagnation, but as the age of opportunities for inner growth….They are indeed formative years, rich in possibilities to unlearn the follies of a lifetime, to see through inbred self deceptions, to deepen understanding and compassion, to widen the horizon of honesty, to refine the sense of fairness.
When Abraham died at 175 years old, he is described as having reached: ‘a good old age, old and satisfied.' According to a striking Midrash (Breisheet Rabbah 65:9), before Abraham, there was no such thing as old age in the world. People got older, but their faces and bodies didn't change, and there was no outward appearances of aging. Therefore, says the midrash, since Isaac looked very much like his father, Abraham, when they both came into the room, no one could tell them apart and no one recognized Abraham for what he had done in the many years of his life. It was then that Abraham prayed for the aging process. God thought about it and granted it, immediately saying: ‘Abraham became old.' (Genesis 24:1).
In contrast to our modern culture, the midrash understands the signs of aging as desirable and meaningful - teaching us that every grey hair earned its color through hard work, struggle, worry, and perseverance. Each wrinkle is an etching of times passed, memories imprinted on life's canvas, and full of lessons to be learned. Each biological change is a vessel of Torah and wisdom that we have to learn from the person living it. Our tradition doesn't just teach or suggest, but demands that we stand and honor those precious experiences and the people who lived through them.
Within the Hebrew words of the commandment is something even beyond standing and beyond honor. The Hebrew word v'hadarta translated in our verse as ‘honor/show deference to' shares a Hebrew root with the word hidur, a word we know from the term hidur mitzvah, talking about the ways we beautify or enhance our observance of a mitzvah through taking steps beyond the minimum requirement. (A popular example of hidur mitzvah is the practice of lighting an increasing number of candles on each night of Hanukah as opposed to fulfilling the basic mitzvah of lighting one candle each night.)
V'hadarta pnei zaken – together, we bear the responsibility to beautify and enhance the face of the older person - to recognize the individual person as special, to maintain his/her dignity, to cherish the opportunity to share our short time together on this earth, to preserve the lessons learned from our aging, to take notice of his/her continued contributions to family, community and society, and to actively transcend the wrinkles and gray hairs to acquire wisdom.
Ken Yehi Ratzon – so may it be.