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They Stood For Him #725

05/06/2022 05:27:34 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Kedoshim

“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old." Leviticus 19:32

They Stood For Him

It was morning, July 12, 2008, and we were in Jerusalem.

As is the custom whenever our congregation visits Israel, Saturday mornings are left open for participants to observe the Shabbat in a way which is both personal and meaningful to them.

And so it was on that morning. Some participated in a walking tour of Muslim and Christian sites. Others relaxed by the pool. And many disbursed throughout Jerusalem to find a synagogue that spoke to them.

Earlier in the week, I had heard of an Italian synagogue tucked into Hillel Street just off the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall and ventured out to worship there. 

The Conegliano Veneto Italian Synagogue, built in the 1700's, was disassembled and transferred from Italy to Jerusalem in 1952.

Although it is rarely included on tours of Israel, I still consider my visit to that synagogue as one of the highlights of my 15 trips to Israel — not so much because of its unique architecture, but because of what I observed within.

Following tradition, midway through the service, the Torah was taken from the ark, and seven men were called to the reading of the parashah.

But one aliyah in particular caught my attention. I have no idea what the man’s name was, but as he was called to the Torah, the entire congregation rose.

I asked the person seated next to me, who this “esteemed” man was, and he replied, “This man is a retired teacher from our school. He is also an elder, and we rise for our elders.”

And I thought, “Is there any more important lesson I can take home?”

Friends, we live in a society focused on the future. In many ways, Judaism is passionate about instilling our children and grandchildren with tradition.

Yet, at the same time, we too easily overlook our seniors. Many do not move as quickly, or hear as well as they used to. Life can often appear confusing to them. Too many are placed in homes out of convenience.

I have seen children publicly making fun of their grandparents, as their parents passively look on.  

Many of us recall grandparents, often in declining health, living with or near us. Sundays were spent visiting. Have we forgotten something?

The Torah weighs in on this topic in this week’s parashah. The portion, titled Kedoshim (“You shall be holy”) includes dozens of mitzvot which remind us how we can make ourselves more distinct, more “holy.”

It commands us not to blindly adopt the practices of the masses, but rather to live “a cut above.” 

There is a line from this week’s Torah portion that I believe exemplifies what being holy truly means. The Torah commands: “You shall rise before the aged.” (Lifnei Saivah T’kum).

When I was growing up, my parents told me a story of a young girl organizing an imaginary tea party. Many of her dolls were seated around a table with tiny plastic teacups placed in front of each of them, but she placed one doll a few yards away, sitting alone behind the couch.

“Why is that doll sitting away from the others?” asked the mother. “Oh, that’s grandpa,” replied the girl. “Whenever we have company in the dining room, you make him sit on his own in the kitchen. I’m practicing for when you get old.”

The dynamic — or attitude — becomes particularly apparent when I observe grandparents being "locked out" by younger generations constantly noodling on their iPhones.

I’m not sure whether the elder who was called to the Torah, was a good teacher, or for that matter a perfect person. But one thing he did possess was age, and with age comes wisdom.

Perhaps the phrase “respect your elders” was overused when we were growing up. Yet in a world advancing so rapidly, I believe that the sentence that commands us to give “deference to the old” needs to be revived.

Judaism does not believe in “mandatory retirement.” What if Moses would have been told to retire at age 75? He began leading the people at 80.

In a world that too often equates value with productivity, elders are too often shunted aside when they stop physically producing. But Judaism believes in more. 

It believes that no matter how much seniors decline in strength, they are deserving of gratitude and respect. We respect not only their wisdom, but the process of wisdom. We are who we are because of them.

Noted the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “What (elders) deserve is preference, yet we do not even offer them equality.”

Yes, it is important to raise our children to be good human beings — good Jews — but we also need to invest more in support services for the elderly. We need to visit and call more. 

We need to turn off our technology in their presence. We need to listen and be more patient. 

As we study this week’s Torah portion, we are reminded of the importance of respecting those in their “golden years.”

Some may require a bit more patience. Others may not be as independent as they once were or are losing their ability to cope with this modern world, but we owe them so much.

Many came across oceans or crossed deserts so that we can enjoy the lives we have today. Despite their physical decline, we need to remember to be respectful. And when we do so, we model holiness.

It is perhaps why the Torah, this week, shares with us the important commandment, which I witnessed that Shabbat in Jerusalem.

We don’t send our elders into the kitchen. We place them at the head of the table.

It’s a lesson that this week’s Torah portion inspires us to consider: We are who we are because of our mothers, fathers and grandparents.

Who has inspired you on your journey?

Let us rise to thank them. For as the Torah reminds us this week: We stand upon their shoulders.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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