Old age is not something we crave.
Our society preaches that youth is something to be glorified. Just look at the advertisements that flood our streets and entertainment venues. Have you ever seen one that features a middle-aged person – unless it’s an ad for an anti-aging cream!
This week’s parsha focuses on Avraham Avinu and his old age and the haftarah on Dovid HaMelech becoming elderly. The midrash (as brought in Rav Eliyahu Wolf’s sefer on hafatros) says that Hashem gave Avraham the crown of old age.
How is old age an advantage? How is it a crown?
“If you’re always battling against getting older, you’re always going to be unhappy, because it will happen anyhow…. Mitch, it is impossible for the old not to envy the young. I envy them being able to go to the health club, or go for a swim. But the issue is to accept who you are and revel in that. This is your time to be in your thirties. I had my time to be in my thirties, and now is my time to be 78. You have to find what’s good and beautiful in your life as it is now. Looking back makes you competitive and age is not a competitive issue.
“The truth is part of me is every age. I’m a three-year-old, I’m a five-year-old, I’m a 37-year-old, I’m a 50-year-old. I’ve been through all of them and I know what it’s like. I delight in being a child, when it’s appropriate to be a child. I delight in being a wise old man when it’s appropriate to be a wise old man. Think of all I can be! I am every age up to my own… How can I be envious of where you are – when I’ve been there myself?” (Tuesdays with Morrie, pgs. 119-121).
The Torah tells us to appreciate and respect our elders: “You should rise before the elderly and honor the aged” (Vayikra 19:32). The Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) teaches that the respect we owe the aged applies to Torah scholars and non-Torah scholars, Jews and non-Jews. What is the rationale for this respect?
The Hebrew word for elderly is “zaken” which is an acronym for “zeh shekaneh chachma” – a person who has acquired wisdom.
The Maharal (Avos 5:25) explains that we owe the elderly respect specifically because their physical forces are no longer what they once were. In a person’s youth, his body’s physicality tends to control him. We are prey to hedonistic urges and impulses. As those physical forces weaken, that which is distinctively human about us, our soul becomes the influential force in our lives. Our divinely given intelligence gains control over our base instincts. This is the wisdom we attain in old age, and why the Torah commands us to rise in respect for the elderly.
The Bais Yisroel of Ger made it a practice to regularly visit older people. He would often go to nursing homes; beyond the kindness involved, he had an additional intention when doing so:
“They barely have bodies left and their physical yearnings have long been abandoned. When I look at them, I see pure souls. And there is nothing more inspiring than spending time with pure souls!”
A friend once asked me a piercing question: If Hashem instructs us to respect senior citizens, why doesn’t He? Why does He give them so many health and functioning challenges?
Perhaps it is to give us a time in our lives when we can access spirituality more easily. Of course, it is possible to waste this opportunity and many people do, “retiring in order to play golf.” However, a thinking person will realize the benefits of the aging process and utilize it to the fullest extent.