I did not take turning 40 well. (This was * koff koff * years ago.) I tried the old Jack Benny trick of remaining perpetually 39 but you can only get away with that for 10 or 12 years before people start to get suspicious.
I even proposed a brilliant bit of logic as to why men should be permitted to dye their graying beards, as follows: the reason men are not allowed to dye their hair is because it is considered a women’s practice. But if a woman should happen to grow some facial hair, she wouldn’t darken it, she would bleach it! Therefore, dyeing one’s beard is the opposite of what a woman would do and should be permitted. I shared this line of reasoning with a certain rav, whose response was, “Nice try.”
So, here we are, (* koff koff *) years later and things are starting to break down, as they tend to do. Unlike turning 40, however, I embrace the oncoming 50s, 60s and 70s with a much more positive attitude, if not actual enthusiasm (and I assure you, it is not actual enthusiasm). Because, believe it or not, God just likes older people more than He does younger people.
It’s true! It’s the last mishna in tractate Kiddushin (82a). Okay, it’s not enough to just be old, but assuming that one is righteous and/or studies Torah, old age is even better than youth. Regarding young people, Isaiah 40:31 says “those who wait for Hashem will renew their strength.” That’s pretty good but regarding older people, Psalms 92:15 says “They will flourish even more in their old age.” Similarly, God promised Avraham in his youth that He would cause him to father a great nation (Genesis 12:2). That’s a great blessing but it was when “Avraham was old, in advanced years” that “Hashem blessed Avraham with everything” (Genesis 24:1).
Unlike our secular society’s youth culture, we see that the Torah values advanced age much more. So much so that the Torah commands us to rise before both Torah scholars and the elderly (Leviticus 19:32). The Sefer HaChinuch explains why these two groups are comparable: a Torah scholar has wisdom that he has acquired through study, while an older person has wisdom that he has acquired through experience. In either case, we were created to pursue wisdom, so it is fitting to honor those who have acquired it, through whatever means. And while the obligation to honor elders excludes unrepentant sinners, it does include non-Jews. The Talmud (Kiddushin 33a) details how Rabbi Yochanan would rise for elderly non-Jews out respect for their life experience, Abaye would offer his hand to help them walk and Rava would speak deferentially to them.
Extending honor to our elders is the exact reason that old age exists. In the earliest generations, people lived a ridiculously long time, with commensurate vitality. (Parents in those generations probably said things like, “He’s way too young to start dating – he’s only 90!”) And yet, despite certain individuals living into multiple centuries, the relatively-young Avraham is the first person the Torah describes as being advanced in age. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 65:9) explains this with the following story:
Avraham asked God to create old age, saying, “Master of the Universe, when a man and his son enter a city, the residents don’t know whom to honor. If You would crown the father with the appearance of old age, then people will know whom to honor.” God replied, “You have asked for a good thing, so I’ll start with you,” hence the aforementioned “Avraham was old, in advanced years” (Genesis 24:1).
Many Biblical verses and rabbinic dicta address the concept of respect for the elderly and what they bring to the table. These include:
- Remember the days of old and ponder the years of many generations; ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will explain it to you – Deuteronomy 32:7;
- In elders there is wisdom and with longevity comes understanding – Job 12:12;
- One who greets an elderly person is like one who greets God’s Presence – Tanchuma, Ki Sisa 27;
- One who learns from the young is like one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine straight from the press. One who learns from the old is like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks aged wine – Avos 4:20;
- among many others.
Avos 5:21 outlines the defining characteristics of each age. The 20s and 30s are more physical in nature – 20 is the age of “pursuit” and 30 is the age of one’s peak physical prowess – but from there, things change. 40 is the age for intellectual maturity. 50 is the age at which one has significant life experience and the wisdom that comes with it. 60 is the age of an “elder” and 70 is the “good, ripe age” mentioned in I Chronicles 29:28. And 80? 80 is the exceptional vigor alluded to in Psalms 90:10.
There is a concept of “hiddur mitzvah,” to “beautify” a mitzvah by performing it in the best possible way. One area in which people are particularly zealous in hiddur mitzvah is when it comes to acquiring a beautiful esrog. (The Torah does not require examining your esrog with a jeweler’s loupe!) Rabbi Aryeh Levin points out there are only two mitzvos where the Torah mentions hiddur. One is the esrog, which the Torah refers to as “the fruit of a beautiful tree” (pri eitz hadar – Leviticus 23:40). The other is when the Torah tells us to respect an elder (hadarta p’nei zakein – Leviticus 19:32). Many people work really hard when it comes to the hiddur of their esrog but not so many put in that effort when it comes to the hiddur of respect for elders. We really should fix that.
While not many people extend as much honor and deference to our elders as we should, we can take solace in the fact that God intends for elders to be honored. It’s the very reason He created the concept of old age in the first place! So, as we age, we should learn to stop resisting and embrace it as the honor it truly is. If the gray hairs and aching joints get us down, we should remember that it’s an honor not everyone is privileged to receive. I’ll take the aches and pains with the knowledge that the Torah values age even if none of those young whippersnappers offers me a seat on the subway.
Now get off my lawn!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.