Old, But Not in the Way
One of my favorite musicians is Jerry Garcia. Jerry Garcia acquired his fame as the leader of the Grateful Dead, but he worked and recorded with many other musicians as well. One of his non-Grateful Dead projects was the formation of a band called “Old and in the Way” and the production of an album with the same name.
Are the Old People in the Way?
“Old and in the Way” is an interesting title. I think that it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the old-style bluegrass music that the band played. Perhaps it was also a reference to their age, since rock music had an ethos of “Hope I die before I get old.”
But “old and in the way” does reflect society’s attitude towards the elderly. Old people are not as physically capable as young people. Old people are often retired from the workforce. They are in the way.
The Torah’s Teaching on the Old
The Torah of course does not tolerate the marginalization of the elderly. This is obvious from the the following pasuk (ויקרא י״ט:ל״ב):
מפּני שיבה תּקום והדרתּ פּני זקן ויראת מּאלקיך אני הי׃
You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD
But the significance and dignity of every human being is found in this week’s parsha as well, in relation to Moshe Rabbeinu recalling his smashing the tablets.
The Second Luchot
The story is well known that Moshe Rabbeinu received two tablets of stone crafted by and engraved upon by Hashem. But when Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Mount Sinai and saw the Golden Calf he cast the two tablets down and shattered them. After praying to Hashem to forgive the Jews for their sin Moshe Rabbeinu was told to carve two new tablets of stone and to bring them up the mountain. There, Hashem would engrave upon them the words of the Ten Commandments.
A remarkable drasha in masechet Menachot (מנחות צ״ט א:יב) on his retelling the story states:
אשר שברת ושמתם בארון (דברים י, ב) תני רב יוסף מלמד שהלוחות ושברי לוחות מונחין בארון מכאן לתלמיד חכם ששכח תלמודו מחמת אונסו שאין נוהגין בו מנהג בזיון
“…[The tablets] which you broke, and you shall put them in the Ark” (Deuteronomy 10:1–2). Rav Yosef teaches that both sets of tablets including the pieces of the broken tablets are placed in the Ark. We learn from here that with regard to a Torah scholar who has forgotten his Torah knowledge due to circumstances beyond his control, one may not behave toward him in a degrading manner.”
Old People are Never Ever in the Way
The new set of tablets were placed in the Ark- the ארון הברית. But what was done with the shattered remnants of the first tablets? Rav Yosef teaches that the shattered tablets were kept alongside the intact second pair of tablets. This in itself is surprising. Why would the shattered stones be kept alongside the intact tablets? Rav Yosef then teaches us that this is meant to teach us a lesson: Scholars who forget their learning due to illness or age must not be disgraced.
The tablets of stone were important because of their content. We might have thought that once the tablets were shattered, they would have just been ignored. But no, the shattered tablets were shown the exact same respect shown to the intact tablets and they were stored alongside them in the Holy of Holies.
Scholars are respected because of their scholarship. They are Torah personified. That is why we stand up when we see them. But what about the scholar who forgot his learning? Is he to be ignored? Rav Yosef teaches us that to ignore him would be to deny his inherent dignity. Just as the shattered tablets were treated with their original respect so too must we treat the scholar who lost his scholarship.
He may be old but he must never be treated in such a way.