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Rabbi Daniel Staum - Parshas Kedoshim 5776 "Purity of Experience"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Elderly woman breaks student's nose for failing to give up bus seat

Julian Ryall in Tokyo, 09 Jul 2010

Tamiko Masuta, 66, the manager of an apartment complex, was arrested after assaulting a teenager on a bus with her umbrella. According to witnesses, she flew into a rage when the student did not stand up and offer her his place, designated as a "silver seat" for elderly passengers. As well as striking him with an umbrella, the pensioner kicked the 18-year-old student and inflicted bruising as well as the broken nose.

Police said she has refused to either admit or deny the charges against her, but added that she has been questioned previously over assaults on students in buses in the city and been given verbal warnings about her conduct.

The incident in Nagasaki is symptomatic of the widening chasm between the generations in Japan, with older people continuing to expect young people to show the respect that is traditional in Japanese society for the elderly.

The Torah demands that we honor and show respect to the elderly and to one who has attained laudable levels of wisdom. “In the presence of an old person you shall rise, and you shall honor the presence of a zakain (sage).”[1]

The gemara[2] explains that ‘zakain’ refers to ‘zeh shakana chochma – this (one) who has acquired wisdom’. The word zakain only hints to ‘zeh shakanah’; how does the gemara know it refers to wisdom?

Chasam Sofer explains that by the world’s standards the more current or contemporary something is the more valuable and accurate it is. This is true in virtually all facets of knowledge - including science, medicine, technology and political science. What was once new and exciting quickly becomes archaic and outdated.

The notable exception is Torah. We make it our mission to try to understand the Torah as closely to its pristine form as possible. All of the explanations advanced in the last three thousand years, are only to gain deeper insight and understanding to the Torah as taught to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai. In fact, the greatest encomium is for one to say that a Torah thought is “Toras Moshe MiSinai”.

This is how Chazal derived that this pasuk must be referring to a Torah sage. The beginning of the pasuk refers to the honor that must be accorded to an older person. The next clause states that one must honor “one who has acquired”. What has he acquired? It must be referring to someone who has acquired something which, the older it is the more respect it deserves. That can only refer to the eternal wisdom of Torah.

In Parshas Vayigash, after Yosef reveals his true identity to his shocked brothers, he instructs them to hurry back to Canaan to bring Yaakov Avinu to Egypt. He sends with the brothers a gift for his father consisting of, “ten he-donkeys laden with the best of Egypt.”[3] The gemara[4] explains that Yosef sent his father ‘aged wine which pleases the elderly’. Maharsha explains that the elderly enjoy aged wine because it warms them.

Rav Shmuel Rozovsky zt’l explained[5] that as people age they feel their vitality wane. They don’t have the energy they once had, and they lack the agility of their youth. In the words of Koheles[6]: “The years will arrive when you will say ‘I have no pleasure in them’.”

It is for this very reason that the elderly have particular pleasure from aged wine. Unlike other foods and beverages which decay with time, the taste and value of wine only improves with age.

Yosef sent Yaakov a tremendous amount of aged wine to symbolize how invaluable Yaakov would be for Yosef, his family, and for all of Egypt. Yaakov would be the “aged wine” of all of Egypt.

Why there is such a breakdown of respect in our society is the subject of much discussion and debate. One component has to do with what we idolize and revere. In a society which venerates youth and external appearance, those who possess wrinkles and are no longer physically fit do not possess the value of athletes and celebrities. That’s a consequence of a superficial society, more interested with external appearances than attainment of depth and meaning.

The Torah however, supremely values wisdom and its pursuit. The gemara[7] relates that Rav Yochanan would stand up for every elderly person – even non-Jews because living life entails learning its lessons and gaining life experience, and that itself makes them worthy of respect.

Another reason for the breakdown of respect is that we are raising a generation who feel a strong sense of entitlement.

Psychologist, Dr Aric Sigman noted that, “Authority is a basic health requirement in children's lives. Children of the spoilt generation are used to having their demands met by their parents and others in authority, and that in turn makes them unprepared for the realities of adult life…This is partly the result of an inability to distinguish between being authoritative versus authoritarian, leaving concepts such as authority and boundaries blurred.”

The fact is that many children today lack proper boundaries, which leads to a lack of respect.

One of the fundamental ideas in the Torah is to be thankful for those who help us in any way. One who is humble and thankful is respectful as well.

The gemara[8] states that in the generation prior to the advent of Moshiach chutzpah will be prevalent. That surely does not mean that we should succumb to it. Rather, we must invest more effort to be respectful, and to teach our children that the Torah obligates us to be respectful.

There is no other country in the world besides Eretz Yisroel where the public transportation busses have a little sticker behind the driver on which is written the words of the pasuk, “In the presence of an old person you shall rise”. It is more than one of the commandments, it represents a basic value for Torah living – respect for wisdom and those who have attained it, even if only from life experience.

We owe great respect for those who, through their wisdom and years, connect us to our illustrious past. Those connections are vital in our desire and effort to connect ourselves with the greatest even of all – Kabbolas HaTorah.

“You shall honor the presence of a zakain

“Laden with the best of Egypt”

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[1] Vayikra 19:32

[2] Kiddushin 32b

[3] Bereishis 45:23

[4] Megillah 16b

[5] Quoted in Ohel Moshe (Rav Moshe Scheinerman)

[6] 12:1

[7] Kiddushin 33a

[8] Sotah

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