Sacred Scripture Paints Elderly as Wise
Abramo Alberto Piattelli
Rabbi, Rome, Italy
For a Rabbi, facing the various issues associated with being elderly, particularly in this day and age, also means confronting a complexity of problems, each one of which merits its own attention.
Indeed, we have issues that concern the psychology of ageing as well as the prevalent tendency to marginalize the elderly from the social fabric, spurning the experience, wisdom, and working capacity of people who are advanced in years. As soon as they reach the age of retirement, some kind of gift is offered to old-age pensioners for their service, and those who offer it are interested in nothing else.
Loneliness, the possibility of filling their days by meeting others or finding something to do become a source of anxiety for the elderly person and causes him/her to age even more every day. With regard to assisting its members, the Jewish community is also addressing these problems. The Psalmist's invocation: "Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent" (Ps 71:9) is still relevant.
In any case, it remains for us to follow the fundamental lines of tradition to draw from them inspiration for our behaviour and, especially, for our motivation.
In the Jewish tradition the relationship with the elderly develops along two paths: on the one hand, attention is paid to the respect that is due to elders, and on the other, to the form of assistance that these individuals require. The fundamental biblical source from which we learn that we are all bound to respect the elderly is the text in the famous chapter on holiness in Leviticus.
"Stand up in the presence of the aged, and show respect for the old"; and it continues, as it were, to seal these words: "thus shall you fear your God: I am the Lord" (19:32).
It is interesting to note that the figure referred to in the biblical text is also identified with the sage, the wise man. In an anagrammatic exegesis, the zaken — the elderly — becomes ze shekanà chochmà, that is, the one who has acquired wisdom. In short, the elderly person is identified with the wise person, and vice versa.
The elderly deserve esteem
Sevà — white hair — an honourable sign of advanced age, according to the Book of Proverbs (16:31), "is gained in a righteous life". In other words, it is a question of maturity and wisdom acquired through study and the experience of life. We are obliged to attribute honour and respect to these people.
The most common failing found in the elderly person is amnesia. In Jewish ethics there is a strong insistence on the need to refrain from ridiculing the teacher who happens to forget something he studied or researched. Indeed, it should be remembered that both the Tablets of the Law and fragments of the first Tablets that Moses received from God's hands on Sinai were found in the famous Holy Ark of biblical memory.
The esteem and honour ascribed to the elderly and the wise must go hand in hand with the effort not to alienate the elderly person who, on the contrary, we must continue to consider an integral part of both the family and the social fabric.
A passage from Ecclesiastes in which, in a particular way, old age is exalted says: "All these things I considered and I applied my mind to every work that is done under the sun" (8:9). These words express how wisdom acquired through living experience is poured out for the benefit of the successive generations.
Yet, unfortunately, old age is not always an attractive condition. All too often it is a sign of weakness, sickness and physical and psychological decline. Let us remember Ecclesiastes' description of old age:
"Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years approach of which you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them'; before the sun is darkened and the light and the moon and the stars, while the clouds return after the rain; when the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders are idle because they are few, and they who look through the windows grow blind; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the mill is low; when one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song are suppressed; and one fears heights, and perils in the street: when the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is without effect" (12:1-5).
Trusting blindly in the elderly
However trust in the elderly person must be considerable and tenacious: Rabbi Simeon bar Eleazar said that if an old man tells you "destroy!" while a young man is telling you "build!", you should destroy since the destruction of an elderly person is always a construction and vice versa for the inexperienced youth.
According to Scripture, the Levites' service in the Tabernacle was limited by age: they continued in active service until the age of 50, after which they retired to their families to minister to their brethren (cf. Nm 8:25).
The elderly in Jewish society have been surrounded by special care and concern since the most ancient times. They occupied an important place both in the family and in society. That "council of elders", frequently mentioned both in biblical texts and in the subsequent tradition, obviously must have been more than a choreographic and honorific consensus. Likewise, their place in the family was comparable in all things and for all things to the relationship with the parents.
The organization of the Jewish community has always catered to the needs of the elderly, and the forms of solidarity provided since biblical times for widows, orphans and the needy in general have been extended to them.
It is interesting to note that from the early Middle Ages decisions were made by community institutions in the interest of helping elderly people. The special conditions of the Jewish Diaspora meant that frequent persecution led to the break-up of the family nucleus so that the first to suffer were, in fact, the elderly, those most vulnerable to suffering and hardship.
It was a question of assuring to the needy elderly of the assistance and especially security in order to continue to practice their religion, to respect every form of Jewish life and above all to avoid the risk of being lured from the faith of their ancestors.
Thus, especially since the 19th century, we see clearly defined structures come into being in various European communities, conceived to provide hospitality and assistance to the elderly.
In an epoch such as this in which generational aging has become an important concern, at a time in which the marginalization of every weak individual and of the aged in particular is a reality visible to all, attention to the elderly is a matter that concerns every member of society, and not only because, thanks to God's will, each and every one is destined to pass through old age. Then the words of the Bible: "Stand up in the presence of the aged" impress on us the duty — and not only the moral duty — to care for the elderly and to organize every possible service on their behalf.
Weekly Edition in English
30 July 2008, page 8
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