Honoring Our Fathers and Mothers

In June 2014, Debbie Fins became president of Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Mass. The following is an excerpt from her Shabbat morning remarks on October 14, 2014, about what it means to respect our elders.

As President of Congregation Beth Israel, I am now on a lot of e-mail lists. I get all sorts of e-mails from United Synagogue and other Jewishly affiliated groups. A few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, there was a link to “A Pre-High Holiday Message to Millenials” by Rabbi David Baum on The Times of Israel website. He wrote that many millenials who return to their home synagogues wonder, “What am I doing here surrounded by people three or four times my own age? What do I need them for anyway? What can they teach me when most of them don’t even know how to use a computer, let alone what a hashtag is?”

As a geriatric care manager, I was intrigued. I am so honored to work with elders who demonstrate courage and resilience every day. And I learn a lot from them. My work with families and elders is to honor the elder, be sure they are living with dignity and as much independence as possible and also to ensure that appropriate assistance is in place, if the elder agrees. But my work is with a subset of elders who are in need. This talk is not about care options, caregiving, or family responsibilities—that’s for another day. Rather, what I would like to talk about today is how we as a Jewish community should honor our older members.

Of course, it is difficult to define what we mean by “old.” I can tell you that I don’t think anyone is “old” unless they are at least 95 years old. But, for the sake of this discussion, let’s use 80 as our definition of “older.” But, let’s also think about members of any age who are limited in function by other disabilities besides age.

In the High Holiday liturgy, the Sh’ma Kolenu prayer has a line, “Do not take Your Holy presence from us. Do not cast us away as we grow old; do not desert us as our energy wanes.” Perhaps, according to Rabbi Baum, this is a message to ourselves. If we want the holy spirit in our lives, we must never cast the old and physically weak away.

Rabbi Gur Aryeh ha-Levi in the 7th century CE stated that it is natural for old people to be despised by the general population when they can no longer function as they once did, but sit idle and have no purpose. The commandment ‘Honor your father and your mother” was given specifically for this situation. And, I might add, my understanding of the commandment is that if one cannot honor or care for one’s parents, the obligation is to make sure that the parent receives the needed care. But, we cannot turn away.

The Torah portion this morning, Hol Hamoed Sukkot, includes these words:  “The Lord said to Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.” (Shmot 34:1). This second set was written with a greater knowledge of human weakness at the hand of an imperfect human being. The Talmud tells us that the fragments of the first set of tablets were carried in the Ark along with the replacement set. That which was once holy retains its holiness even when it is broken. So, too, the elderly, those with dementia and the infirm may not be cast aside. They must be accorded the reverence they have earned in their lives . In Berachot 8b, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to his children: “Be careful regarding how you treat an elderly individual who has forgotten his learning due to circumstances beyond his control.”

Again, according to Rabbi Baum, this is a directive that we “must see our seniors, even those who cannot teach like they once could, and respect them for the Torah and wisdom that they once possessed, just like the first set of the tablets that the Ten Commandments were written on and destroyed by Moses. If we must honor those who have forgotten their knowledge, how much more so should we honor, revere and learn from our seniors who still have lessons to teach?”

Jewish Tradition teaches that all elders, regardless of formal learning, have acquired wisdom, simply through the experience of living. Age, then, is a metaphor for learning. The word “zaken” or “elder” is so associated with wisdom that the term has come to refer to anyone who has acquired wisdom, regardless of age.

We should be honoring our grandparents and parents, the seniors who keep our morning minyan going and the ones who greet us each year at High Holiday services or take the role of adjourning our Board meetings. I think about when I was saying Kaddish for my father over 20 years ago. There was a group of men who were there each morning, because that is where they wanted to be, not because they were saying Kaddish themselves. They were so helpful to me, pointing out the pages, helping me learn an unfamiliar service, supporting me through a difficult year. And they were so committed to our shul. They are all gone now. Others have taken their places, but many depart for warmer climates in the winter. It is time for the next generation to learn from these examples.

In the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19:32, the Torah instructs us in the mitzvah of how to shape our interactions with our elders. The usual translation is “You are to rise before the elderly and show deference for the old.” Danny Siegel, of Tzedakah Fame, expounds on that: He says, “the name of the mitzvah is Hiddur Pnai Zaken” and he translates it as “you shall rise before an elder and allow the beauty, glory and majesty of their faces to emerge.” We are required to provide whatever will suit the personal needs of the elders and provide whatever will rid our elders of possible loneliness and give them happiness. But, there is no “them” and no “us.” God willing, all of us shall be old one day. Maimonides defined the mitzvah of loving others as we love ourselves: “Whatever I want for myself, I want the same for others; whatever I do not want for myself, I do not want for others” (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah 206).

That means that we should be creating a community now in which all of us will want to grow old. The commentators say that at the age of 100, Sarah was as beautiful as she was at the age of 20. Maybe not in the sense of “gorgeous.” But, maybe what is meant is that Sarah was radiant and her face was majestic. By this radiance, the generations who followed her have benefitted in infinite ways. This is old age as it should be and how we here at BI should celebrate it.

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified geriatric care manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in geriatric care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsGCM.

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