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Judaism places enormous respect on the elderly.
For many years, America had lost its most capable and knowledgeable people to ... retirement. In universities as well as business, there were mandatory retirement rules demanding that a person leave his profession when he reached age 65. Fortunately, in recent years, there has been a rethinking of this policy.
From the vantage point of Jewish tradition, which prizes wisdom, these rules make little sense.The older a person is, the more likely he or she is to have acquired life experience and wisdom. Thus, rather than being denied an opportunity to share their knowledge, Judaism teaches that elders should lead our people.
In the Torah, many of the greatest leaders of the Jewish People gain their positions at an advanced age. Abraham first responds to God's call that he go to Canaan when he is 75 years old. Later on, when the Israelites leave Egypt, they are led by Moses and Aaron - ages 80 and 83 respectively.
The Talmud states: "If the youth tell you to build, and the elders tell you to destroy, you should destroy and not build, because the destruction of the elders is in itself constructive."
Rechavam, King Solomon's son, is described in the Bible as abandoning the advice given to him by his older advisors for the counsel of his younger advisors. The result? He loses most of his kingdom and the Jewish nation becomes irrevocably divided into the Northern Kingdom and the Kingdom of Judah. Had he followed the advice of the elders, this tragedy could have been prevented.
Respect for elders is discussed in this week's Torah portion, Kedoshim. The word "kedoshim" means "holiness," and much of the Parsha discusses laws which are designed to help the Jewish People become a holy nation. Among these laws is an injunction to "stand up before an old person and give respect to the elders" (Leviticus 19:32). This injunction was taken quite literally by the sources and Jewish law mandates that one stand up out of respect when an elder passes by. The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, says that a person acquires the status of "elder" at age 70. Gentile elders are also to be honored and respected. The observance of this Mitzvah is still followed today by many observant Jews.
Included within the laws of respecting an elder is not to sit in his seat, not to answer in his stead, and not to contradict his words. Interestingly, these laws are similar to those that are to be observed by a child toward his or her parents. In both instances there is, among other things, the recognition of greater wisdom on the part of the senior partner in the relationship.
However, Jewish tradition does not relegate the province of wisdom solely to those who have reached the age of 70. The same respect and recognition is given to those who achieve great scholarship and wisdom even at much younger ages. For instance, Jewish law also requires that one stand when a young Torah scholar passes by.
The Torah concludes there are two ways to acquire wisdom: Through life experience, and through learning Torah.