In this week’s Torah portion, within a lengthy list of commandments we read:
In the presence of the elderly you shall rise and you shall respect an elder; you shall fear your God, I am Hashem. (Leviticus 19:32)
This commandment – respect for the elderly – is easily understandable. Most familiar to us as the fifth of the Ten Commandments, respect for parents and grandparents is the cornerstone of strong family relationships, which in turn leads to a healthier society as a whole. What is unusual about the commandment as stated here in Leviticus 19 is the context in which it appears in the Torah.
Anyone who has ever seen the inside of a Torah scroll is aware that the text appears in sections with spaces separating the sections. These sections do not correspond to the chapter numbers that we are used to, which were developed by Christian scholars centuries later. It is these section breaks, the original meaning of the term parasha or portion refers to these sections.
This verse is the last of a ten-verse section that mostly deals with forbidden pagan practices. Based on this context, those laws in this section that don’t seem to be obviously referring to paganism, such as the prohibition against eating blood and allowing one’s daughter to become a prostitute are properly understood as responses to behaviors that were associated with idolatrous practices common in the Ancient Near East. Even the opening law of the section, the agricultural rules of orlah, the prohibition against eating fruit of the first three years of a tree’s growth, is understood by some to have its root in the negation of certain pagan beliefs and customs. (see Nachmanides here, and Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed III:37)
This leads to an obvious question regarding the verse we are discussing. What possible connection is there between honoring the elderly and the importance of avoiding the immorality of pagan beliefs and ways? Why specifically is this commandment linked to the general injunction to fear God, as the verse concludes, “you shall fear God, I am the Lord”?
In the preface to his classic work on paganism, The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer writes that the fear of death and of the dead is “on the whole, probably the most powerful force in the making of primitive religion.”
Ancient paganism was obsessed with death because pagans focused their entire system of faith on the forces that govern the natural world. They feared death so strongly because they believed that they – like everything else in the natural world – was finite and mortal.
Everything in the natural physical world follows the same trajectory of life and growth. Every living thing is born or comes to life. In the first third to quarter of its lifespan it grows to its peak of size, bauty, and strength. From this peak, there begins a gradual decline in strength and vitality until finally dying. This is the way of all living things; plants, animals, as well as humans.
The exception to this rule is the human soul. A human being does not peak emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually at the same time as the body reaches its peak of health and strength. The soul of man continues to develop and grow long after the body has begun its decline towards death. In fact, the soul, if left unimpeded by the interference of the deterioration of the body, continues to grow stronger throughout life. The body, on the other hand, no matter how good the conditioning or nutritional program, inevitably deteriorates, if only gradually.
Seen this way, the soul is – in effect – immune from the rules of the rest of physical, organic life. The human soul does not follow the rules of the natural trajectory of life, growth, decline, and death.
For an ideology that sees physical nature as the only mode of existence – in a society that values the body as the primary focus of the human experience – a person whose body is at its peak of strength and beauty will be revered. If, on the other hand, the spiritual is valued as the highest purpose and definition of vitality, honor will be given to those whose souls are more fully developed. By commanding us to honor the elderly the Torah is teaching us that the essence of the human being is spiritual. Honoring our elders is a statement that we value the soul over the body.
The Torah uses an unusual verb in the commandment to respect the elderly. The Hebrew words are vehadarta pnei zaken. Vehadarta does not really mean “you shall respect.” In fact, vehadarta is a second-person verb conjugation of the word hadar, which usually translates as “beauty.” For example:
And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful [hadar] trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. – Leviticus 23:40
Many flowers will grow in it, and it will be filled with joy and singing. The greatness of Lebanon will be given to it, and the beauty [hadar] of Carmel and Sharon. They will see the shining-greatness of the Lord, the wonderful power of our God. – Isaiah 35:2
In addition, the verse doesn’t say “respect an elder.” The literal Hebrew says “respect the face of an elder.”
Putting these two notable word choices together, the exact translation of the commandment is probably closer to “you shall find beauty in the face of an elder.” This is certainly an etymologically accurate rendering of the syntax.
There is as powerful natural inclination is to be impressed by youthful beauty. Youthful strength and beauty are very physically appealing. The Torah is telling us that this mistaken view sees only the natural physical side of things. The essence of humanity is the soul. The spiritual side of humanity is beyond the natural experience of the body. We are to look beyond the natural and physical. We are called upon to see the true human beauty. If we see things correctly, the result will be that we will, in the word of the verse, “find beauty in the face of an elder.”
The verse ends with the injunction to fear God. The connection is clear. When we say that man was created in the image of God we mean the soul, not the body. Proper respect for the elderly constitutes rejection of a physically-centered existence and acceptance of a spiritual reality.
May we all build stronger connections to the elderly in our lives, our greatest sources of wisdom and spiritual guidance.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast