Kedoshim: Honoring Wisdom

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Kedoshim

Kedoshim has many ethical and religious principles but one of the most
universal is respect for the elderly:

“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you
shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
(Vayikra/Leviticus 19:32)

Our friend Rashi explains that this verse seems to teach the same
thing twice but actually clarifies its application: the use of the
word “zaken” in the second clause means that we should honor the
elderly who have acquired wisdom, and not necessarily any senior
sinner. “Zaken” means both “elderly” and “beard” (not unrelated
meanings, obviously, at least, when one considers Bronze age
lifespans) but has a context in the Torah which leads Rashi to
conclude that it means those who have wisdom.

We might also take Rashi’s point in a slightly broader way: we are to
honor the elderly because they are presumed to have wisdom. This
means, in practical terms (again, according to Rashi) not sitting in
an elder’s customary place, not contradicting them or taking their
turn to speak. I don’t think Rashi means to limit the way we honor the
elderly by these examples, but rather intends them as the kinds of
behaviors which are paradigmatic of honoring.

Honoring the aged isn’t just good manners; it’s a core mitzvah of
Judaism which stands in stark contrast to the the youth obsessed
culture of contemporary America. We assume that young is “cool” and
the latest styles are worthy of the biggest news, but Judaism teaches
humility literally “in the face of” age [p’nai zaken] and the wisdom
it may impart. To put it another way, to honor the aged is to practice
the discipline of service and to train ourselves in humility,
precisely when it might be easiest to be arrogant and condescending.
It is to remind ourselves that every human being owes gratitude to
those who came before, and we are all, indeed, one human family.

Shabbat Shalom,


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