Dear Friends of The Fellowship,
Though Christians and Jews have many beliefs that differ, it is always helpful to remember that there are many beliefs we share. One of these beliefs, reinforced time and again in Scripture – though, sadly, absent from many aspects of our modern life – is the importance of respecting the elderly.
What does it really mean to respect the elderly? Today I’m going to suggest that it means much more than simply giving up our seat on a bus so an older person can sit down. No, when it says, in Leviticus 19:32, “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God,” the Bible may indeed be talking about common courtesy, but is talking about something deeper as well.
The Bible tells us that our elders have something to teach us – they have life experiences we can learn from. Deuteronomy 32:7 says, “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.” In other words, if we are willing to listen, the older generation can instruct us in the path we are to follow and remind us of the values we hold dear that can often be obscured by modern society.
We see a great example of an elder imparting wisdom to a younger generation when Jacob is on his deathbed. In Genesis 48:3–4, he tells Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’” Jacob is sharing his experience with God with his son, telling what it meant to him and what it means for Joseph. He’s setting the spiritual and geographical course for future generations.
And because of this experience and belief, Jacob also instructs Joseph and his brothers multiple times not to bury him there in Egypt, but to take his body back to that land promised by God to bury him with his fathers (Genesis 49:29-32). In essence, he’s telling his sons, “You are sojourners and visitors here. Don’t forget from where you come, both in terms of values and of place. My place and your place are ultimately in the homeland in Israel.”
I heard a similar message when my great-grandfather died. He lived here in Jerusalem, and before he passed, he created a special document – a sort of ethical will. There was one paragraph on what to do with his possessions; the rest of the five pages were about what was important to him. For example, he admonished us to remember that our roots are here in Jerusalem and to always remember to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. This ethical will is a source of continued inspiration to me. In fact, it’s one of the many reasons I made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) — to respect my great-grandfather’s wisdom and my family’s Jewish heritage.
Just as reading our spiritual elders’ wise words through the pages of the Bible enriches our lives, so has honoring my elder’s instructions richly blessed my life. Because, in the end, respecting the elderly isn’t just a biblical command; it’s a time-honored privilege.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Chairman, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews® of Australia