This week's Torah portion introduces the commandment to leave fallen harvest in the field to be "gleaned" by the poor, as illustrated here in "The Gleaners" by Gustave Doré from the 1865 La Sainte Bible.
This week's Torah portion introduces the commandment to leave fallen harvest in the field to be "gleaned" by the poor, as illustrated here in "The Gleaners" by Gustave Doré from the 1865 La Sainte Bible.

Honor our elders, especially in these excruciating times

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Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

Leviticus 16:1-20:27

When the sun sets this Shabbat eve, Captain Tom Moore will have celebrated his 100th birthday in England (b”h). To mark the milestone, the World War II veteran undertook a fundraiser to honor the members of Britain’s National Health Service who are risking their lives caring for people afflicted with Covid-19: Walking 100 laps around his large garden.

He was hoping to raise a total of £1,000 ($1,235 USD) to help combat the disease that has utterly re-defined this moment in human history. However, as of April 21, he had raised more than £27 million ($33.4 million USD).

And he’s captured at least that many hearts.

The quest of this gentle, tenacious, inspirational grandpa — whose voice and message resonate out of another time — was exactly the story I needed in this surreal and ongoing crisis. Best of all, for the final 10 laps (though he went way past 100 and has said he’ll continue as long as possible), young members of the First Battalion Yorkshire Regiment stood at attention, forming a corridor of honor for the kindly old soldier to walk through, as he crossed the finish line to cheers and salutes from around the world.

“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God, I am the Eternal” (Leviticus 19:32).

In the very center of our Torah comes this clear and unequivocal directive, just a few paragraphs after the iconic “love your fellow as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) and amid the extraordinary list of ways to create a just and peaceful society we call The Holiness Code.

Notwithstanding the famous Hillel teaching that the essence of the Torah is “What would be hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow man” (Talmud Shabbat 31a), this commandment embodies humility, insisting that we stand in the presence of wisdom and experience and take our rightful place in the chain of living and learning.

If there was ever a time to be humble before the elderly, to give grace and honor to those who have lived long years, it is now.

We were told from the outset that our beloved elders would be more susceptible to the ravages of this pandemic due to compromised respiratory systems, close quarters in group facilities, and shortages of providers and equipment that could endanger their care.

These are unthinkable, excruciating times. And in such days, we need our traditions more than ever to be a guiding light.

The phrase “show deference” can be read literally as “beautify the face,” and what wisdom the Torah displays when it admonishes us to do just that. For how can we ever hope to love our neighbor if we do not see ourselves somehow reflected in them? And how can we ever hope to honor the elderly if we do not acknowledge that, if we are very fortunate, we will one day be them?

Too often, the aged are regarded as a nuisance, a burden, even an embarrassment.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, though. In 2004, in this very publication, Rabbi Pinchas Lipner addressed with honesty and sensitivity the great leap forward that this biblical verse signified:

“The Torah demanded that a person not be evaluated by the might of his flesh, but by the might of his spirit. The Israelites were, in fact, ruled by elders (z’keinim) because of the characteristic feature of age — discernment leading to justice, and not by the characteristic feature of the young: impulse. So far from being thought of as useless to the community, the aged were accorded the highest dignity … [for] youth passes and passes quickly.”

Rabbi Lipner was the dean of the now closed Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy of San Francisco, where I was a student for nine years. He and his wife, Isabel, my kindergarten teacher, were my first formal Jewish role models. At the school, we learned to stand in the presence of the rabbis and show kavod to age and experience. I’m very grateful for that foundation.

But I’m also taken by the phrase “you shall fear/be in awe of your God.” In a portion that repeats “I am the Eternal your God” many times, awe and fear of God is mentioned only here and in a preceding, even more famous, verse that prohibits insulting the deaf or placing a stumbling block before the blind (Lev. 19:14).

When we indulge in arrogance and hubris, thinking “it can’t happen to me,” the Torah pulls us up short. We can be brought low by disability or illness, and likely will be subject to old age in the best of circumstances. When that Truth strikes, wonder, and yes even fear, of the Creator are appropriate and necessary.

When our society rises to the occasion of honoring our elders, of prioritizing their care and comfort, and walking in their footsteps, then perhaps we are on the path to partnership with the Divine to create kedushah, holiness on earth.

Until then, may we heed the hopeful words of Captain Tom, who brought warmth, optimism and wisdom into this dark hour when he said, “For all those people finding it difficult at the moment, the sun will shine on you again and the clouds will go away.”

May it be, Captain Tom. And may we be worthy of it.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].