Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, created life as coming around full circle. A newborn baby is completely dependent on his parents. As the child develops, he becomes more and more independent, ultimately reaching the point where others depend on him. But then, very often, comes the time when he has to revert back to a state of dependency, during the period of old age.
My grandmother, Mrs. Hannah Kestenbaum, has asked me on numerous occasions to write about the challenges of old age. I told her that I can’t really advise others on something that I have not experienced myself. I am closing in on thirty-six, but, boruch Hashem, I still feel young.
Nonetheless, in deference to her wishes, in the next few articles, I would like to touch upon some important issues regarding old age. I welcome any feedback from all readers, both young and old.
Let us begin by discussing the younger generation’s obligation to be respectful and sensitive to the needs of the older generation. As we began this article, both the very young and old have something in common: they are both dependent. Of course, there is a tremendous difference between them that must not be overlooked.
A child has few qualms about his dependency. In fact, he usually enjoys wrapping his parents around his little finger. Older people, who have spent their lifetimes achieving independence, are forced against their will into the uncomfortable state of dependency. It is humbling and many times embarrassing for them to come onto others.
Therefore, helping our elders requires great sensitivity. If the older person feels like he is a burden, then it is even more difficult for him to accept assistance. We have to do it with a smile, recognizing the great zechus of this mitzvah. Most importantly, we have to realize the stature of the person we are helping.
A shallow person observing the elderly person whose faculties are compromised only sees what is presently before his eyes. He foolishly looks at the elderly person with less respect, as he sees himself as an active achiever vis-à-vis this older person. He forgets that in front of him stands a person who has a lifetime of accomplishments already behind him that command a great deal of respect.
My parents related that Rav Zechariah Gelley conveyed this idea based on the Gemara in Maseches Brachos (8b) which states that Rav Yehoshua ben Levi warned his children to be careful about the honor of an older person who forgot his Torah, for both the second set of Luchos and the first set of broken Luchos rest in the Aron in the Kodesh Hakodoshim. The broken Luchos, although not functional right now, still carry their holiness and value. So too, a talmid chochom still commands his initial respect despite his inability to presently access his Torah. A person’s greatness is foremost marked by what he has done yesterday, not by what he can do today.
I never understand how some people actually poke fun of the elderly, such as imitating the way they walk or talk. Don’t they realize that, iy”H, in a few years, they will be old as well? Such behavior is a breach in kavod ha’adam.
Unfortunately, the elderly often get neglected and ignored in their shuls and communities. Even those who helped build the very shul they daven in can easily be overlooked by the fresh blood. We must make an effort to speak to them and involve them in what is going on. They have so many pearls of wisdom to offer if we would only take the time to listen to them. And they would get such chizuk knowing that they are cared for and appreciated.
We must not get swept up in the attitude of Western culture that sadly views the frail and elderly as being burdensome on society. On the contrary, they are our heroes. They are the founders of Yiddishkeit in our country. We daven, “Al tashlicheini le’eis ziknah,” asking Hashem that we not be cast aside in our old age. In the merit of our commitment to looking out for our precious elders, may we indeed be zocheh to be honored in our old age.
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Rabbi Kestenbaum, who can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, is the author of the Hebrew sefer “Olam Hamiddos,” which is now in its second printing.
Shiurim from Rabbi Kestenbaum are available for free online at waterburyyeshiva.org.
Unfortunately, the elderly often get neglected and ignored in their shuls and communities.