“Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and thou shalt fear thy God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:32).
In a world that prioritizes technology, change, and innovation, it has become too easy to lose patience with the elderly and forget about their immense value. The timeless commandments in the Bible remind us to always honor our elders, and even stand up out of respect when they walk into the room.
The Bible puts a great value on the correlation between age and acquired wisdom. In fact, one may not even begin to study the spiritual works of the Kabbalah until the age of 40. The Hebrew word for “old man” is “zaken,” which is an acronym for “zeh shekaneh chachma” – one who has acquired wisdom. The commandment from Leviticus does not only apply to wise Jewish elders, but to all older people, from all religions and backgrounds. The Bible understands that life experience is a valuable thing that should be honored and respected.
The 19th century Hassidic Rabbi of Gur used to frequent nursing homes, visiting the elderly. He would stay for a long time, really spending time with people. When asked about this practice, the Rabbi replied, “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!“
Many of us fear getting older. According to the Talmud, “For hedonistic people, the more they age, the more their minds wane; but for Biblical scholars, the more they age, the more their minds become sharpened” (Kinim, 3:6). “I embrace aging… as you grow, you learn more. If you stayed at 22, you’d always be as ignorant as you were at 22. Aging is not just decay, you know. It’s growth. People who are always saying, ‘I wish I were young again’ reflect unsatisfied lives, unfulfilled lives, lives that haven’t found any meaning. Because if you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more.” –Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
It can be easy to get annoyed at the elderly. They live life at a different pace – they move slower, drive slower, and can get into conversations that can last for longer than you may like. But remember the words of the great sage Rashi from the 11th century , who said that in this verse “old man” refers to someone who has acquired wisdom. The elderly of our communities have lived long lives, and it might just be worthwhile to slow down and listen to what they have to say. With every generation, we get further and further from the revelation at Mt. Sinai. We appreciate and respect our elders, as they are even closer to the prophet Moses and to the miraculous time when God gave the Jewish people the Bible.