Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
The first paragraph of this commentary should be in the Israeli trivia contest. I hope you learned a lot about Israel this week.
Cinco de Mayo is my birthday, so the D’var Torah seems topical. I will sit down now.
Here is this week’s D’var Torah:
How OId is Old?
Most public buses in Israel feature a sign that quotes from a verse in this week’s parashah: “You shall rise before the aged” (Leviticus 19:32). The sign is intended as a reminder that if an elderly person boards the bus, a younger person who is already seated should offer to give up his or her seat. The use of this verse in such a context suggests that old age is a time of increasing frailty, and thus the elderly should be offered the opportunity to sit and rest while traveling across town. But the Talmudic discussion of this verse presents a deeper understanding of the commandment to rise before the aged, offering a new way to think about how we regard those in our society who are advanced in years.
Leaving the bathroom question aside, the rabbis further inquire whether we are permitted to close our eyes if we see an elderly person approaching. What if we wish to avoid the awkwardness of displaying reverence? Can we just look the other way and pretend not to see that person, or even turn a sharp corner to avoid the encounter altogether? The rabbis insist that no, it is necessary to acknowledge any elderly person who comes within a four-cubit distance. As proof, they juxtapose the beginning and the end of the verse: “You shall stand… and you shall fear your God.” The rabbis explain that the phrase “and you shall fear your God” appears in the Torah in situations when only God can know what is really happening. When we stand before the elderly, we must do so with fear and reverence for the One who knows the secrets of our hearts; we can’t deliberately look away, because there is no looking away from the Omnipresent. This explanation suggests that standing before the old is tantamount to fearing God – perhaps because when we accord respect to the old, we train ourselves to act with reverence, thereby better serving God.
If age is less about wrinkles than about wisdom, then who decides who counts as old? The Talmud tells a story about two sages, Rabbi Ilai and Rabbi Yaakov bar Zavdi, who were once sitting and studying Torah when the elderly Rabbi Shimon bar Abba passed by. They stood up before him in reverence. Rabbi Shimon bar Abba responded by rebuking them, insisting that they were wrong on two counts: “First, you are Torah scholars, and I am just an associate [haver]. And furthermore, does the Torah stand before those who study it?” (Kiddushin 33b). Rabbi Shimon bar Abba is offended; why should the students stand before him just because of his age? What matters is not age, but wisdom, and they have acquired more wisdom than he. Moreover, anyone who is engaged in Torah study is considered like a Torah scroll, and the Torah does not stand before those who study it. In a parallel text in the Jerusalem Talmud (Bikkurim 3.3 [65c]), Rabbi Shimon bar Abba insists “I am not old,” and tells the pair of scholars, “Does the Torah stand before its son?” – implying that wisdom essentially inverts chronological age. Older does not necessarily mean wiser, but wisdom effectively makes you older.
I like to imagine that one day, when I am older and more wrinkled, I will board a bus carrying a heavy volume of Talmud, and a young person will offer me a seat. I won’t take it for myself, but perhaps I’ll take it for the sake of Torah – so that I might open the volume of Talmud and sink into my seat and learn.