Respecting Elders

The imperative to honor our elders has taken on particular relevance in this time of pandemic, because older people are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

What does it mean to respect one's parents and revere one's elders?

How might this value shape our decisions as individuals and as community leaders?

(יב) כַּבֵּ֥ד אֶת־אָבִ֖יךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּ֑ךָ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יַאֲרִכ֣וּן יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ (ס)
(12) Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the LORD your God is assigning to you.
(א) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר (ב) דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ג) אִ֣ישׁ אִמּ֤וֹ וְאָבִיו֙ תִּירָ֔אוּ וְאֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֖י תִּשְׁמֹ֑רוּ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
(1) The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: (2) Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy. (3) You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My sabbaths: I the LORD am your God.

Both Exodus 20:12 and Leviticus 19:3 offer instruction with regard to how to treat one's parents. Exodus 20:12 is from the Ten Commandments and Leviticus 19 is the beginning of an extended unit of ritual and ethical instruction that biblical scholars call the "Holiness Code."

  • How does each of these two verses relate to the larger context in which it appears?
  • What differences do you notice with regard to the particular wording of the two verses? In what ways are these differences significant?
  • The Hebrew that is here translated as "revere" (Lev. 19:3) can also be translated as "fear." How does this different translation affect your understanding of the verse?
  • How do you distinguish among the following words: Honor, Respect, Revere, Fear?
(לב) מִפְּנֵ֤י שֵׂיבָה֙ תָּק֔וּם וְהָדַרְתָּ֖ פְּנֵ֣י זָקֵ֑ן וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ (פ)

(32) You shall rise before the aged and glorify the elder; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

This verse comes later in the same chapter of Leviticus 19 in which we are told to revere (or fear) our parents (Lev. 19:3). It broadens our obligations beyond the family, commanding reverence for all older people.

  • How do you understand the force of this verse? Does it mandate a particular attitude, or a set of actions? Which (attitude or action) is harder to achieve?
  • How can reverence for aged people be expressed on an individual level?
  • How can it be expressed within the context of communal institutions?
  • How can it be expressed societally?

ת"ר איזהו מורא ואיזהו כיבוד

מורא לא עומד במקומו ולא יושב במקומו ולא סותר את דבריו ולא מכריעו

כיבוד מאכיל ומשקה מלביש ומכסה מכניס ומוציא

The Sages taught: What does fear mean and what does honor mean?

Fear is: Not standing in his place, and not sitting in his place, and not contradicting his words, and not taking sides when he is in an argument.

Honor is: Giving food, giving drink, dressing, covering, bringing in and taking out.

This text is a baraita, a tradition that goes back to earliest generation of Rabbis.

  • How do the early Rabbis distinguish between honor and fear?
  • Note that for these Sages, the commandments to honor and to fear one's parents prescribe actions, not feelings or attitudes. What role do you think feelings have in the practice of these commandments?
  • What are ways that people today enact each of these commandments (to fear and to honor parents)?
  • In what ways are these commandments relevant to those who don't have children? Who don't have parents?

בעו מיניה מרב עולא

עד היכן כיבוד אב ואם

אמר להם צאו וראו מה עשה עובד כוכבים אחד באשקלון ודמא בן נתינה שמו

פעם אחת בקשו חכמים פרקמטיא בששים ריבוא שכר והיה מפתח מונח תחת מראשותיו של אביו ולא ציערו

The Sages asked Rav Ulla:

How far does the obligation to honor one’s father and mother extend?

He said to them: Go and see what one gentile did in Ashkelon, and his name was Dama ben Netina.

Once the Sages sought sought a business transaction giving him a six hundred thousand profit, but the key [he needed to access the merchandise] was placed under his [sleeping] father’s head, and he would not disturb him.

In this talmudic story, Rav Ulla identifies a non-Jew as a model for how to honor one's parent.

  • What is the significance of the fact that the model for how to do this commandment is a non-Jew?
  • The storyteller emphasizes that Dama ben Netina sacrifices great economic profit rather than disturbing his father's sleep. Why do you think the magnitude of this obligation is conveyed in economic terms?

(ט) אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בַּר סִימוֹן

אַבְרָהָם תָּבַע זִקְנָה, אָמַר לְפָנָיו רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים אָדָם וּבְנוֹ נִכְנָסִין לְמָקוֹם וְאֵין אָדָם יוֹדֵעַ לְמִי מְכַבֵּד, מִתּוֹךְ שֶׁאַתָּה מְעַטְּרוֹ בְּזִקְנָה אָדָם יוֹדֵעַ לְמִי מְכַבֵּד. אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חַיֶּיךָ דָּבָר טוֹב תָּבַעְתָּ וּמִמְּךָ הוּא מַתְחִיל.

מִתְּחִלַּת הַסֵּפֶר וְעַד כָּאן אֵין כְּתִיב זִקְנָה, וְכֵיוָן שֶׁעָמַד אַבְרָהָם נָתַן לוֹ זִקְנָה, (בראשית כד, א): וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים.

Rabbi Yehuda ben Shimon said:

Abraham asked for old age, pleading before God, "Sovereign of the Universe, when a man and his son enter a town, people don't know whom to honor, but if You crown the father with old age, they will know whom to honor."

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: "You have asked well, and it shall begin with you."

From the beginning of the book until here, old age is not mentioned, but when Abraham arises, the appearance of old age is granted to him: "And Abraham was old, well advanced in years" (Genesis 24:1).

This midrash, an expansive rabbinic interpretation of Genesis, compares the appearance of advanced age to a "crown." It is striking that the value that the storyteller attaches to old age relates to public recognition and honor and not to length of years. Abraham does not request longevity, but rather an appearance that makes his advanced age evident to others. (Other characters in earlier chapters of Genesis live for many years, but they are not described as "old.")

  • According to this tradition, what does gray hair signify?
  • What would be different about contemporary culture if the appearance of advanced age was valued?
  • What would be different about our culture if it was centered on the value of respecting elders?
  • In what ways can this value be expressed through action? Through policy?

For the Rabbis, respect for elders is more than a feeling or attitude, it is a practice, expressed through actions and through money. How will the decisions we make elevate the social status of old people? How will we invest resources in their well-being?