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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vaera                              January 25, 2020 - 28 Tevet 5780

01/24/2020 10:48:18 AM

Jan24

This week I’d like to share with you the words of my colleague, Rabbi Joyce Newmark of Teaneck, NJ:

Everyone knows that thirteen is the age of Bar Mitzvah. What is less well-known is that in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages), Yehudah ben Tema offers a complete chronology of Jewish life:  At five years of age - the study of Bible, at ten - the study of Mishnah, at thirteen - responsibility for the mitzvot, at fifteen - the study of Talmud, at eighteen - marriage, at twenty - pursuit of a livelihood, at thirty - the peak of one's powers, at forty - the age of understanding, at fifty - the age of counsel, at sixty - old age, at seventy - the hoary head, at eighty - the age of strength, at ninety - the bent back, at one hundred - as one dead and out of this world.

At eighty - the age of strength?  That's certainly not how most of our society perceives eighty.  Someone who is eighty is “over the hill,” useless, frail and sickly, just waiting to die, and often seen as a burden to his or her family and community.  It's no wonder that nobody wants to be old - or to be perceived as old.  We spend billions of dollars to cover up gray hair and bald heads. We rush to buy the newest product that promises to conceal wrinkles and age spots.  We squeeze aging bodies into clothing designed for teenagers.  And if none of this works - well, there's always cosmetic surgery.  Old age seems to be a modern form of leprosy. We hide old people in nursing homes, retirement communities, and senior citizen centers because we don't want young people to be frightened by glimpses of their future.

It is interesting, then, that our Torah holds a different view about age. In this week's Torah portion, Vaera, we come to the heart of the Exodus story.  Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go.  Pharaoh, of course, refuses, and so the plagues begin, but before the first plague we read, “Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three, when they made their demand on Pharaoh.”  They were old men!  Moses and Aaron should have been living in the Egyptian equivalent of the Jewish Home for the Aged, not contending with Pharaoh for the future of the Jewish people.  Yet the Torah actually stops in the middle of the narrative to tell us that Moses was 80 and Aaron 83 at the beginning of their mission.

The 12th century Spanish commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra writes, “We do not find prophets anywhere else in Tanakh about whom the text points out that they prophesied when elderly, except these.” Why? Ibn Ezra continues, “Because [Torah] attributes greatness to them beyond all other prophets, for only to them did God appear . . . for only to them was the Torah given, and thus through their hands do the righteous inherit the world to come.” Ibn Ezra's comment makes it seem as if, somehow, the greatness of Moses and Aaron was attributable to their age, as if 80 years were required to learn the lessons that would be needed to carry out their mission.

And what are the lessons of age?  The compassion that comes from seeing that everyone is capable of foolishness and that no one is immune to pain.  The humility that comes from seeing plans and aspirations - one's own and others' - fall short and discovering that success can strike without warning. The strength that comes from learning, finally, that our most important judge is our self, that the favor of kings and princes is worthless if we have no self-respect.

The strength of eighty is not physical.  Few people who reach eighty do so without aches and pains, without slowing down, and some only reach this age with severely diminished powers.  The strength of eighty is the strength of character that comes from a lifetime of learning.

When we see only the physical, the external, and when we fear aging and therefore the aged, we sacrifice a precious resource. The Torah commands us, “you shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old” (Vayikra 19:32).  Because the word for old, zakein, is often used in Rabbinic literature to mean scholar, the gemara asks, does this apply only to an old person who is wise and scholarly, one who is to be respected for his learning?  The answer is no, even an am ha-aretz, an uneducated person, who has reached old age has something worthwhile to teach.

The elderly are not to be hidden away and shunned as if carrying some dread disease. “Rabbi Yehuda said, be careful with an old person who has forgotten his learning because of his circumstances (Rashi explains, because of illness or poverty). The Tablets [of the Ten Commandments] and the broken pieces of the [first] Tablets were both placed in the Ark” (Berakhot 8b). And never forget, by the way we treat our elders we are teaching our children how to one day treat us. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Sun, August 9 2020 19 Av 5780