The Case for Accompaniment

an elderly man sitting among crowd of people
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Editor’s Note: Continuing our content partnership with Neshama, the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, Rabbi Zoe Van Raan writes about the central role of our elders in Jewish teaching.

The concept of kibud zekaynim, honoring elders, is woven throughout many of our most studied texts, as we will see below. Herein, elders are revered in one way or another. This reverence is not confined to any one aspect of the human condition, but encompasses the spiritual, mental, and physical aspects of the aging process. Age is not static, as there are always developments being created. Age is a process of continually becoming.

As far as the roles of elders in a community, Numbers 11:16 is a G-d given instruction to gather the elders, as they are to become leaders. They remain as such throughout.

Of Leviticus 19:32, “You should rise before the elderly and honor the aged,” I suggest that this rising represents a desire to someday summon our internal experiences enough so that we may announce our place in the societally supported spiritual realm. As time happens and passes, there are more and more opportunities for spiritual awakening.

Deuteronomy 32:7 reads, “Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”  The depth of experience that comes with age brings about a depth of response that surpasses those of younger years. Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses directs the elders to explain G-d’s instructions to the Jewish people. Moses, himself considered a grand leader, defers to the elders.      

Deuteronomy 34:7 reads “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were undimmed and his strength undiminished.”  Aging does not detract from liveliness, but continually builds upon itself. The fact that aging is honored is made evident through a fairly common Hebrew expression and birthday greeting which says ‘May you live to 120.’      

The psalms speak of aging as well. “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent…But I will hope continually and will praise You yet more and more” (71:9, 14). Old age is replete with blessings, and, as such, much to praise. “With long life I will satisfy him and show him My salvation” (91:16). Aging is filled with the expedition of becoming. Long life is something for which to aspire.  

Proverbs 16:31says “Grey hair is a crown of glory; It is attained by the way of righteousness.”  We move through the aging process, achieving shiny trophies such as those given to royalty, to mark the way.  

In Hebrew, when referring to a person, “old” is synonymous with “wise”. The Hebrew word for elderly, zaken, is an acronym for ‘zeh shekaneh chachma‘ — a person who has acquired wisdom.

Job, 12:12, says that wisdom is found among the aged, and long life brings understanding.

Mishnah Kinnim 3:6 says “With aged ones come wisdom and understanding in length of days.” 

Sefer HaMiddot 1 states “Elders give strength to the Jewish people, and their advice is beneficial for us.”

In Pirkei Avot 4:20, Elisha ben Abuyah said “He who learns when a child, to what is he compared? To ink written upon a new writing sheet. And he who learns when an old man, to what is he compared? To ink written on a rubbed writing sheet. Rabbi Yose ben Judah a man of Kfar Ha-babli said: He who learns from the young, to what is he compared? To one who eats unripe grapes, and drinks wine from his vat; And he who learns from the old, to what is he compared? To one who eats ripe grapes, and drinks old wine. Rabbi said: don’t look at the container but at that which is in it: there is a new container full of old wine, and an old [container] in which there is not even new [wine].”

Midrash Tanchuma Ki Tisa 27 states “One should greet an elderly person as one greets the Shekhina.”  The Shekhina, the presence of G-d, often illustrated as the feminine aspect of G-d, is greeted on Shabbat with wild abandon.   

Both overtly and on subterranean levels, there is a wellspring of other textual examples in which eldering is regarded and experienced as something to honor and celebrate. At any age, may we be the leaders we want to follow. May we be the ones before whom we would stand. May we be the explainers. May we adhere to the ancient words in our wisdom tradition as we follow and accompany our ancestors through the revered passage of time.              

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