Shavuot presents a metaphor on honoring the law and aged

Shavuot commemorates the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, an event that, in part, earned Jews the title of the People of the Book.

Considering the way Jews treat sacred books — we kiss them when dropped, bury them when worn out, adorn with crowns and study and exalt our Torah on every Sabbath and holiday — it should be no surprise that the Talmud speaks of two sets of tablets that were cherished and preserved. One set shattered (Exodus 32:19) and one was a replacement set (Exodus 34:4): "Luchot v'shivray luchot munachot baaron (both the whole tablets and the broken tablets were placed in the ark)" (Brakhot 8b).

Although there is no specific biblical mention of the two sets being found in the ark, this notion developed from Deuteronomy 10:1-2: "Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark." Rashi, a medieval French commentator, suggested that the ambiguity of the word "them" could easily imply that both the broken and the replacement sets were saved together.

The image of the Israelites carrying two sets of tablets through their long years of desert wandering is a powerful metaphor that resonates at this sacred season of Shavuot. In the Talmud's noteworthy discussion of this episode, a young rabbi was chastised for studying at too rapid a pace for some of the older participants. He was admonished for his haste with the words: "Be careful to respect an old man who has forgotten his learning through no fault of his own," a gentle reminder that each individual, even those whose minds are clouded, is to be accorded the utmost respect.

Just as broken tablets or frayed prayerbooks, although no longer usable, are worthy of dignified treatment, so too, is a human being whose mind does not function as it once did not to be discarded. These are sobering thoughts in an era when so many people live well into old age, as evidenced by the startling statistic that today the 85-and-older segment of the population is 31 times larger than it was in 1900. Projections indicate that by the year 2030 there will be 70 million people older than 65 living in this country.

The dual message of a shattered fragment of the tablets and the importance of deference to elders is demonstrated in a stunning contemporary account that would have brought tears to the talmudic author. Viktor Frankl, a therapist who survived incarceration in a concentration camp, struggled with the decision to leave Nazi Germany while he still could. However, to do so meant being separated from his parents. Shortly after Kristallnacht, Frankl went to check on his parents. His father told him how he had watched in the shadows as the Nazis ransacked and destroyed their synagogue. The following day, his father returned to survey the destruction and picked up a piece of marble with a Hebrew inscription on it.

There it lay on the table before Viktor Frankl — a piece of the congregation's shattered Ten Commandments with just two letters, easily recognizable from the commandment: "Honor thy father and thy mother."

When he saw that, he realized that he could not leave his parents and refused the opportunity to be rescued. Seeing those few Hebrew letters inspired him to take that commandment seriously, even though he placed his life at risk when he might have been justified in disregarding the commandment in order to save his own life. For Frankl, the message of a tablet, though broken and almost unrecognizable, continued to instruct his life.

The metaphoric meaning found in the account of the shattered tablets as well as in Frankl's real-life experience provides the lesson that something that is old or broken can have purpose and meaning and should be accorded respect and dignity. Especially in this instance, shattered tablets serve as a reminder of duty to the aged, elegantly and succinctly championed by the author of the Book of Proverbs (16:31): "The gray-haired head is a crown of glory."