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DISCOUNTING SENIOR CITIZENS

by Joshua Gottlieb    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In modern times, people generally regard old age as a nuisance, something we seek to avoid until it inevitably overtakes us. Elderly people, as well, are oftentimes treated with ridicule and scorn. However, from a Torah perspective, one finds a very different view.

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In modern times, people generally regard old age as a nuisance, something we seek to avoid until it inevitably overtakes us. Elderly people, as well, are oftentimes treated with ridicule and scorn. However, from a Torah perspective, one finds a very different view.

The Talmud (Tractate Baba Metzia 87a) explains that until the time of Abraham, an outward appearance of old age did not exist. However, this presented a problem, as people intending to speak with Abraham were invariably confused and ended up speaking with his son Isaac instead. Therefore, Abraham prayed to Hashem for "old age" and his request was granted. As the verse states, "Abraham was old, well on in years. . ." (Genesis 24:1). The reasoning proffered by the Talmud raises an interesting question. Surely Abraham was not seeking self-glorification. Why then was he so concerned that people speak only to him? Wasn't Isaac also a knowledgeable individual capable of answering people's questions?

The Kehillat Yitzchak, a compilation of commentaries written at the turn of the century, explains that clearly Abraham was worried about a much more fundamental problem. People desiring guidance in religious or social matters needed to discuss them with someone who had experience and understanding in life. Consequently, speaking with Isaac, in his relative youth, would not necessarily be helpful. Not only would talking to Abraham be a more profitable use of their time, but talking with Isaac instead could prove to be disastrous.

In this week's Torah portion, we read of the untimely deaths of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Although the Torah clearly articulates their punishment, their actual sin was much more cryptic. The verse states that, "they brought before Hashem an alien fire that He had not commanded them" (Leviticus 10:1). The Talmud (Tractate Eruvin 63a) explains that they died after ruling on a religious matter (the bringing of the alien fire) in the presence of their teacher, Moses. The Talmud then relates a similar episode which occurred with the Mishnaic sage, Rabbi Eliezer. A student of his ruled on a halachic matter while he was present. Rabbi Eliezer then told his wife that he would be amazed if this student lived out his years. When the student did, in fact, die early, Rabbi Eliezer's wife asked him if he was a prophet, for how else could he have predicted the student's untimely fate. Rabbi Eliezer replied that he was not a prophet, but that he knew that the sin of ruling on a halachic matter in the presence of one's teacher is punishable by Divine death.

Upon close examination, this account in the Talmud raises several difficulties. First, even if the student was guilty of detracting from the respect due to his teacher, why did the sin have such severe repercussions? In addition, why couldn't Rabbi Eliezer overlook his dignity, and thereby save his student from death? Rabbi Chaim Shmuelvitz, one of the towering Torah figures of the previous generation, explains that this account in the Talmud is based on a Midrash which teaches that the Jewish people are compared to a bird. This teaches us that just as a bird cannot fly without wings, so too the Jewish people cannot exist without its elders. When a student makes a ruling by himself and bypasses his teacher, he is effectively declaring that there is no advantage in listening to a more senior individual. As such behavior can precipitate the breakdown of Jewish society, his punishment must be harsh and inescapable, so as to discredit this view among the rest of society. However, it remains to be seen how exactly such a conversation with a younger person instead of an older one can result in the downfall of a nation.

The answer, it would seem, is rationalization. Someone with less experience is more likely to justify a lenient answer to a question and may thereby pass an inaccurate ruling. This can lead to a perversion of the laws and customs, thus bringing about the nation's ruin. Only one who is older and has more experience can recognize the futility and dangers of rationalizing, and is therefore prone to rule more correctly.

Clearly, the Torah's outlook on old age is more positive than what we have come to expect from Western society. Regardless of intelligence and wisdom, younger individuals will always lack one significant attribute experience. Only under the guidance of our elders are we able to avoid the spiritual degeneration brought upon us by rationalization, and instead strive to improve ourselves in our quest to grow closer to Hashem.

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Joshua Gottlieb, who hails from Atlanta, is a senior (get it J) at the Ner Israel High School in Baltimore.

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