Commandment #5: Are old people irrelevant?

Eventually I’m going to lose my hair. It’s just a thing that’s going to happen. That’s the genetic reality, and I’m totally cool with it. Okay, okay. I’m not cool with it. I hate it. It’s horrible. It’s terrifying.

And you know who knows it’s terrifying? Advertisers. Because I’m telling you every time I log on to the interwebs I’m smacked in the face with another ad for hair-thickening shampoos, and serums, and medications, and surgeries, and whatever in the world this thing is. 

Why is this all so terrifying? Because thinning hair means I’m older and closer to dying? Well, yes, and I covered that in my video on “Do not murder.” 

But this is a little different. A little more subtle. It’s terrifying because it doesn’t seem like, as a society, we really, um, like old people. I mean, yeah, we pay lip service to them. In theory we like them. 

But in practice, none of the things that we, as a society, seem to value, pair very well with getting old. Like, good looks, for one. A youthful appearance. Long, luscious locks and tight, unwrinkled skin. Society really, really likes that. 

But other things, too. Like the capacity to do strenuous things. And master technology. And high degrees of productivity and output.

And if that’s what it means to have value in the eyes of society, to be a player in society’s game, then getting old means to get relegated to the sidelines of life. 

But this is depressing, I don’t like it. So, how do we treat old people better? And why should we want to? Well, by now you know the drill. Back to the Ten Commandments we go. 

The obvious place for us to look is the fifth commandment: honoring your mother and father. Kibbud av va’em. “Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you.”

A lot of the people that talk about this commandment talk about it in terms of gratitude. Hakarat hatov. 

Sefer HaChinuch, an anonymous work written in 13th-century Spain, says that “the root of the mitzvah to honor parents is that it is fitting to acknowledge and return kindness to those who have been kind to us; especially when it comes to parents, to take to heart that they are the reason we exist and brought us up. For these it is truly fitting to honor them in every way.”

That makes a lot of sense. But I think there’s more here. And I think it can help us get to the heart of the conundrum we started with: how to think about old age in the context of a youth-obsessed culture. 

You see, to become old and irrelevant in the eyes of society is bad — but becoming old and irrelevant in the eyes of your own family, your own children? Ouch. That’s even worse.

And it happens. Like, all the time. It’s subtle. No one that I know, at least, would intentionally hurt or dishonor their parents.

But there’s this time/relevance continuum that seems to happen. Cue the overhead projector! At the start, kids are basically 100% dependent on their guardians. 

I remember holding my own child for the first time and realizing: this little person’s life is totally, completely in my hands. She wouldn’t last a few minutes out there in the world alone. 

She needs me — totally. To steer her away from medicine cabinets and electric sockets; to hold down a job and make money so she has food on table and clothes on her back. 

But as time passes, the more we are able to both literally and figuratively stand on our feet, the less reliant we become. On our parents’ protection. Their money. Their guidance. If anything, at some point in the continuum, the roles even become reversed. Our parents begin to rely on us for the very things we relied on them for. 

And so…slowly, over time, parents become…less relevant. Not that we love them any less. But just that life gets busy. So we forget to call. We forget to visit. We put them on the sidelines.

So how do we intervene in this tendency? How do we redirect this drift towards irrelevance that will come for our parents…and will one day, no doubt, come for us as well? 

I think a clue is in another verse. One that deals with respecting our elders more broadly. The verse says, “You shall rise before a venerable person and you shall respect the elderly, and you shall fear your God. I am the Lord.”

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known simply by his acronym Rashi, the preeminent commentator on the Torah, asks what the verse means by “respecting” [the elderly]? And he gives a really, really specific answer. You shouldn’t speak in their place, and you shouldn’t sit in their place.

Don’t speak in his place or sit in his place. Don’t cut your mother off when she’s talking. Don’t sit in your father’s chair. But to me, there’s more here than just these common courtesies. I think Rashi was pointing to something much deeper.

Don’t speak in their place — in other words, understand that old people do indeed have something to say. If you cut them off, you might miss it. 

That continuum. [Cue the projector…again!] It’s a fallacy. Yes, there are certain forms of value that dwindle over time. But there are lots of forms of value. 

There is value in being able to do vigorous physical work, yes. But there’s also a unique value in wisdom, in experience, in having been around the block, in having seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

The Talmud tells a story about the sage Rabbi Yochanan who would stand before the elderly Arameans and say, “How many troubles and experiences have passed over them!” He knew that their troubles and experiences gave them insight he did not have access to, no matter how smart and learned he was. 

“With age comes wisdom, and length of days brings understanding,” says Job. And, when I really reflect, I don’t even need to take Job’s word for it. I have this experience all of the time. I’ll be struggling with a life decision — about where to live, how to make ends meet, how to navigate a difficult conversation at work. And if I happen to let my father or mother in on what I’m dealing with, I’m amazed how often they’ve been through the very same thing. Why am I so surprised?

But aside from the value that old people and parents provide, there’s another reason to afford them respect. And that correlates with Rashi’s other example: don’t sit in their place. 

This is about more than the courtesy of giving up your bench on the bus for an older person. It’s about a fundamental recognition that every elder, every parent, really deserves a place of their own. To be seen. To be honored. Regardless of the value they produce in the present, but for the value they had in the past, or I should say “to” the past.

I know that sounds strange. We are so used to throwing out things that don’t have any utility, but that’s precisely the point. Our parents, our elders, aren’t things, rather they are our direct link to the chain of the history that came before us.

However clever and advanced we are, or think we are, we stand on the shoulders of our parents, just like they stood on theirs. What they built is our foundation, as will what we build become the foundation for our children. The world is advancing at an exponential rate and that’s part of the challenge here. To deny our parents their place in our story is shortsighted.

When I think of the great people that came before me and what they stood for, and it gives me clarity as to my mission in life, and that’s super meaningful.

The psychologist Erik Erickson said that, “lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life.” Honoring our parents, besides its practicalities, says something about ourselves — that we’re connected, that we see ourselves in the context of history, that we value, as Erikson said, the whole life. 

So yes. I’m scared of getting old and losing the trappings of youth. And I think I have very good cause to be afraid. There are many reasons in my society and maybe in my own family that days of relevance are numbered.

But if we, as individuals and as a community, find a way to tap into and live by this commandment, number 5 of the Big Ten: to not just feel grateful, but to practically express it, to listen a bit closer to the timeless wisdom of our parents, and by thinking a bit bigger than ourselves so that we can live a whole life, I think we have a chance to carve another path.

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