You shall rise before the white-haired, and honor the face of the old man (19:32)
The Torah considers old age a virtue and a blessing. It instructs to respect all elderly, regardless of their scholarship and piety, because the many trials and experiences that each additional year of life brings yield a wisdom which the most accomplished young prodigy cannot equal.
This is in marked contrast to the prevalent attitude in the “developed” countries of todays world, where old age is a liability. Youth is seen as the highest credential in every field from business to government, as a younger generation insists on “learning from their own mistakes” rather than building upon the life experience of their elders. At 50, a person is considered “over the hill” and is already receiving hints that his position would be better filled by someone twenty-five years his junior; in many companies and institutions, retirement is mandatory by age 65 or earlier.
Thus society dictates that ones later years be marked by inactivity and decline. The aged are made to feel that they are useless if not a burden, and had best confine themselves to retirement villages and nursing homes. After decades of achievement, their knowledge and talent are suddenly worthless; after decades of contributing to society, they are suddenly undeserving recipients, grateful for every time the younger generation takes off from work and play to drop by for a half-hour chat and the requisite Fathers Day necktie.
On the surface, the modern-day attitude seems at least partly justified. Is it not a fact that a person physically weakens as he advances in years? True, the inactivity of retirement has been shown to be a key factor in the deterioration of the elderly; but is it still not an inescapable fact of nature that the body of a 70-year-old is not the body of a 20-year-old?
But this, precisely, is the point: is a persons worth to be measured by his physical prowess? By the number of man-hours and inter-continental flights that can be extracted from him per week? Our attitude toward the aged reflects our very conception of “value.” If a persons physical strength has waned while his sagacity and insight have grown, do we view this as an improvement or a decline? If a persons output has diminished in quantity but has increased in quality, has his net worth risen or fallen?
Indeed, a twenty-year-old can dance the night away while his grandmother tires after a few minutes. But man was not created to dance for hours on end. Man was created to make life on earth purer, brighter and holier than it was before he came on the scene. Seen in this light, the spiritual maturity of the aged more than compensates for their lessened physical strength.
Certainly, the physical health of the body affects ones productivity. Life is a marriage of body and soul, and is at its most productive when nurtured by a sound physique as well as a healthy spirit. But the effects of the aging process upon a persons productivity are largely determined by the manner in which he regards this marriage and partnership. Which is the means and which is the end? If the soul is nothing more than an engine to drive the bodys procurement of its needs and aims, then the bodys physical weakening with age brings with it a spiritual deterioration as well—a descent into boredom, futility and despair. But when one regards the body as an accessory to the soul, the very opposite is the case: the spiritual growth of old age invigorates the body, enabling one to lead a productive existence for as long as the Almighty grants one the gift of life.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Four friends from Yeshiva high school were enrolled in a Talmud studies class at New York University and had all managed to earn A’s so far – after all, they had studied Talmud in depth in high school. They were in fact so confident of passing Monday morning’s final exam that they decided to go to a baseball game in Boston on Sunday night, figuring that they would have plenty of time to get back after the game. But they overdid it and fell asleep on the train and missed their stop in New York City completely, riding straight through.
They didn’t get back to the City until Monday afternoon.
After discussing their predicament, all four students decided to go to their Rabbi/Professor that afternoon with the same story – that they had visited a friend out of town who was in hospital, but on the way back they got a flat tire which caused them to miss the final exam.
After hearing their story, the Rabbi/Professor agreed that they could take the final the next day.
The students were relieved and all studied diligently that night for the exam.
The next day, the Rabbi/Professor placed all of the students in separate rooms, giving each of them an exam booklet. All four of them were able to answer the first relatively straightforward question, worth 5 points. Each of them sighed with relief, realizing how well prepared they were for the exam.
Then they turned the page and written on the second page was the second question: “For 95 points, which tire was it that developed a flat?”