Ask Your Elders

  • Rav Jonathan Mishkin







Ask Your Elders

by Rav Jonathan Mishkin



            This week's essay will deviate from the approach I have been taking in analyzing the last few parshiyot.  Instead of looking at an idea within the framework of its presentation in the Torah, I will examine a midrashic usage of a verse.  What this means is that the Sages of the Talmud often set aside the literal meaning of a passage and attach to it an interpretation somewhat distant from the original context.  Justification for this technique is the traditional belief that the Torah's words contain many layers of meaning.  Accepting this philosophy is usually necessary in sustaining the legal portions of the Torah, is useful in deriving lessons from the narratives, and is almost expected from any source of poetry - a genre which of course makes up most of Parashat Ha'azinu.


            In his penultimate address to the nation, Moses recites a song telling of God's relationship with Israel, alluding to the past as well as to the future.  At the beginning of the parasha, when discussing God's selection of Israel as His nation, Moses says that the choice was made early in the world's history:


"Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; Ask your father, he will inform you, your elders - they will tell you.  When the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of man, He fixed the boundaries of peoples in relation to Israel's numbers.  For the Lord's portion is His people, Jacob his own allotment" (Deuteronomy 32:7-9).


            This is a necessary first step in understanding the entire story of the Jewish people.  Before anything happened between God and the family that became the nation of Israel, God picked the Jews from among the other nations with a plan to forge a unique bond with them.  God then protected the Jews in the desert, feeding them and providing for their needs; the Jews were ungrateful, rebelled, were punished, and so began the turbulent rises and falls of Israel's history.  But everything goes back to that opening moment of being chosen - it is only because the people of Israel are singled out that they are both given special treatment by the Lord, and held more accountable than other peoples for their behavior.


            The Talmud treats verse 7 in a different way altogether.  In Shabbat 23a the gemara discusses the blessings recited upon lighting Chanuka candles:


"What benediction is uttered? 'Who sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of Chanuka.'  And where did He command us?  Rav Ivia said: It follows from 'you shall not turn aside from the matter which they tell you' (Deuteronomy 17:11).  Rav Nechemia quoted 'Ask your father he will inform you, your elders - they will tell you'" (ibid. 32:7).


The problem raised by the gemara is that blessings recited when performing mitzvot state that God commanded us to perform them.  This is all very well for biblical commandments, but does not quite fit with ordinances instituted by the Rabbis, for instance, Chanuka.  The gemara's classic solution to this problem is that the Torah did in fact order its adherents to listen to the Sages, and therefore fulfilling a rabbinical precept is indirectly obeying the will of God.  Rav Ivia finds support from a passage discussing the authority of an age's priests and judges, while Rav Nechemia turns to our verse and seems to argue that the elders have a right to tell us what to do.  Why did Rav Nechemia prefer this selection from Moses' poem over Rav Ivia's choice which directly addresses the issue of rabbinic wisdom and  power?


Let us begin to answer this question with an examination of Judaism's attitudes towards the elderly.  We start with Leviticus 19:32: "You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear God, I am the Lord."  The Torah here commands respect for old people, a nice example of a MISHPAT - a law that seems logical and which most people would naturally agree is a good idea.  Why should we treat the elderly well?  People in their later years may need to feel loved, needed, useful.  Psalms 71:9 begs God "Do not cast me off in time of old age, when my strength fails do not forsake me."  The golden years can be tough times, and the Torah warns us not to dismiss the older members of our society.  The mishna in Ethics of the Fathers picks up this idea: "Rabbi Yishmael says: be gentle to the young and pleasant to the elderly; be sure to greet every person with a smile." (3:12) A later mishna quotes Rabbi Yose ben Yehuda of Kfar Ha-Bavli, a Tana, who contrasts the young with the old: "He who learns from young men is like one who eats unripe grapes and drinks the new wine from the wine press; He who learns from old men is like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks aged wine" (4:20).  An older person is full of life's memories and experiences; they have much to teach in the ways of the world.


In a well-known commandment, the Torah dictates that children respect their parents.  Among the interpretations associated with this mitzva is the fact that parents deserve our love, admiration, reverence, because they brought us into this world and for this we should be grateful.  At least one commentator suggests that for this reason, the obligation extends to honoring grandparents who similarly are owed gratitude for our existence.  (Rabbi Yoel Sirkes to Yoreh De'a 240:24)  None of the above three approaches to old age is a distinctly Jewish idea, so we proceed to a fourth explanation which is.


The Torah contains several statements which promise longevity as a reward for obeying the Torah.  Deuteronomy 6:2, for example, says "so that you, your children, and your children's children may revere the Lord your God and follow, as long as you live, all His laws and commandments that I enjoin upon you, to the end that you may long endure."  The requirement mentioned above to respect parents comes with a similar guarantee: "Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you" (Exodus 20:12).  Perhaps we can infer that people who have lived a long time have done so because their behavior has found favor in God's eyes.  They deserve our respect because their old age indicates righteousness. 


Let us return to the verse from Leviticus and explore the rabbinic interpretation of the command. "You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old" has little to do with how old a person is and more to do with how much Torah he knows.  The Aramaic translation of this states the rabbinic approach: "Rise before the elderly who understand the Torah."  Here is the Talmud's analysis of the verse as it appears in Kiddushin 32b. 


"Our Rabbis taught: 'You shall rise before the aged.' I might think, even before an aged fool; therefore it is written 'and honor the face of a ZAKEN (old), and zaken can only refer to a Sage, for it is said 'Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel' (Numbers 11:16).  Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: ZAKEN means only he who has acquired wisdom." 


Rabbi Yose goes on to argue that the verse's instruction even includes respecting a young sage. The last opinion in the mishna of Avot 4:20, quoted above, agrees: Rabbi Meir says, 'Do not look at the bottle but at what it contains - a new bottle may be full of old wine and an old bottle may not even have new wine.'


Lastly, we present a variation on this idea.  Respecting the elderly is not only a function of recognizing that they are learned and wise, but is critical in understanding what the older generation means to the younger.  The following is an excerpt from a chapter of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's "Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav Volume Two."


"The old Rebbe walks into the classroom crowded with students who are young enough to be his grandchildren.  He enters as an old man with wrinkled face, his eyes reflecting the fatigue and sadness of old age.  The Rebbe is seated and sees before him rows of young beaming faces, clear eyes radiating the joy of being young.  For a moment, the Rebbe is gripped with pessimism, with tremors of uncertainty.  He asks himself, 'Can there be a dialogue between an old teacher and young students enjoying the spring of their lives?'  The Rebbe starts the shiur, uncertain as to how it will proceed.  Suddenly the door opens and an old man, much older than the Rebbe enters.  He is the grandfather of the Rebbe, Reb Chaim Brisker (1853-1918).  It would be most difficult to study Talmud with students who are trained in the sciences and mathematics, were it not for his method, which is very modern and equals, if not surpasses, most contemporary forms of logic, metaphysics, or philosophy.  The door opens again and another older man comes in.  He is older than Reb Chaim, for he lived in the seventeenth century. His name is Reb Sabbatai Cohen (1622-1663), known as the Shakh, who must be present when civil law, dinei mamonot, is discussed.  Many more visitors arrive, some from the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, and others harking back to antiquity - Rabbenu Tam (1090-1171), Rashi (1040-1105), Rambam (1135-1204), Ra'avad (1125-1198), Rashba (1245-1310), Rabbi Akiva (40-135), and others.  These scholarly giants of the past are bidden to take their seats.  The Rebbe introduces the guests to his pupils, and the dialogue commences.  The Rambam states a halakha; the Ra'avad disagrees sharply, as is his wont.  Some students interrupt to defend the Rambam, and they express themselves harshly against the Ra'avad, as young people are apt to do.  The Rebbe softly corrects the students and suggests more restrained tones.  The Rashba smiles gently.  The Rebbe tries to analyze what the students meant, and other students intercede.  Rabbenu Tam is called upon to express his opinion, and suddenly, a symposium of generations comes into existence.  Young students debate earlier generations with an air of daring familiarity, and a crescendo of discussion ensues."


            Anyone who has spent time in serious study recognizes Rabbi Soloveitchik's description as the MESORA - the passing of the traditions from one generation to the next, connecting the past to the future.  Judaism ascribes authority to Jewish law and ideas only because our culture teaches that they can be traced back through the ages to revelation at Sinai - the original delivery of the Torah by God to the nation.  The elders of our people are not only valuable because of what they know but because they represent the link in the chain of Torah transmission.  The new, younger generation needs the older one both for guidance and to authenticate their behavior as the legitimate expression of Judaism.  Tradition states that at Sinai Moses was given a Written Law and an Oral Law to complement it.  At first, the Rabbis held that it was forbidden to commit the Oral Law to writing (see Gittin 60b), the policy changing due to historical considerations with the writing of the Mishna.  One explanation for the earlier prohibition was that keeping the Oral Law unwritten necessitated that every generation be linked to the previous one through a teacher-student relationship.  Protecting this structure meant that students could rest assured that what their Rebbeim were teaching them had roots in the original Mosaic law.


            Let us now return to Rabbi Nechemia.  You'll recall that he bases the authority of rabbinic law on the verse in Deuteronomy: 'Ask your father he will inform you, your elders - they will tell you.'  The value of the nation's elders is that they represent the Sinaitic tradition.  It is this connection to the past which grants them the power to construct TAKANOT - new law, like Chanuka.  They are the bearers of the MESORA and as such understand how to apply it to new situations which might be national circumstances like the wars preceding the miracles of Chanuka, or the necessity to standardize prayer, or any other of the rabbinic institutions which have become part of Jewish culture.


            In the introduction to this essay I warned that I would be examining the DRASH - interpretation of a verse, but I believe that Rabbi Nechemia's understanding of Deuteronomy 32:7 is not that far from the PESHAT - the literal meaning of the Torah.  The PESHAT emphasizes the elders' responsibility through the generations to communicate the fact of the nation's chosenness.  Yet, Rabbi Nechemia also uses the verse as support for the DRASH, the equally important transmission of the MESORA, the source of Jewish practice and belief.