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Parshas Bo: The Dignity of Old Age

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Jan 22, 2023
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In this week’s parsha, after two hundred and ten years, the Bnei Yisrael leave Egypt.  Parshas Bo begins with the eighth plague, Makkas Arbeh - the locust swarm.  As was done before each plague, Pharaoh was warned that if he did not let the Israelites leave, G-d would strike Egypt with Heavenly wrath.  Even Pharaoh’s advisors have had enough, and they said to Pharaoh: עַד-מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ--שַׁלַּח אֶת-הָאֲנָשִׁים, וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת-ה' אֱלֹקֵיהֶם; הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע, כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם - until when will this (nation) be for us a snare?  Send the men and they will worship Hashem their G-d; do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed!? (Shemos 10:7).  


Moshe and Aharon were brought before Pharaoh and he said: go and worship Hashem your G-d… (But) who and who is going? (10:8).  And Moshe famously answered: בִּנְעָרֵינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵינוּ נֵלֵךְ; בְּבָנֵינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵנוּ בְּצֹאנֵנוּ וּבִבְקָרֵנוּ, נֵלֵךְ--כִּי חַג-ה’ לָנוּ - with our youth and our elders we will go; with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our cattle we will go, for a festival to G-d it is for us (10:9).  


When Pharaoh heard that Moshe wanted the entire nation to go, he rescinded permission, and said that only the men could go.  This was unacceptable to Moshe, and the plague of the locust-swarm inundated the land.  For Am Yisrael, our survival, continuity and eternity lies in the beauty of the bridge that spans the ages.  The mesorah of the past - our elders - reaches forth into the future - our youth.  Only with our youth and our elders, with our sons and our daughters, can we have a festival to G-d. 


Whereas in some other cultures, the elders are seen as obsolete and past their prime, not in the “know” and “antiquated and outdated”, in Yahadus, they are accorded the greatest respect.  We know our past, present and future lies in the wisdom, Torah and truisms that they pass on to us.  Rather than denigrate our elders, chalilah, we respect and revere them.  This is codified as a mitzvah d’Oraisa incumbent upon all: מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם, וְהָדַרְתָּ פְּנֵי זָקֵן - before a hoary head you shall rise, and give glory to the face of an older person, and you shall revere your G-d, I am Hashem (Vayikra 19:32).  


It is our elders who teach our youth how to live with dignity, how to cling to the mesorah, how to recall the past to build the future, and how to remain respectful and respected at every age.  Without the youth and the elderly, Moshe said to Pharaoh, we will not go.  Either we all go, or no one goes.   On aging and ones impact and mission in old age, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav zt’l, teaches [related by the Rav at YU in 1981]: “Interesting is the sentence authored by King David: יְמֵי-שְׁנוֹתֵינוּ בָהֶם שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה וְאִם בִּגְבוּרֹת שְׁמוֹנִים שָׁנָה - The days of our years are seventy years, or by reason of special courage they are eighty years (Ps.90:10).  Not everyone lives to be seventy, only some do.  If one has courage, he may attain the age of eighty… What does this actually mean?  It means that in order to reach eighty and to live with dignity, you have to be a courageous person.  How does this courage express itself? First of all, in admitting that you are eighty years old.  Some people do not admit their age.  They act as if they were still twenty.  First of all, admitting one’s age.  Secondly, in having the courage to carry on, even though certain faculties are indeed affected by one’s age.  One must go on!  It is even more than that; it is the courage not to get frightened whenever one feels a pain.  Usually, an old man develops hypochondria.  Any change that occurs in him frightens him.  The same is true intellectually.  An old man should not say that he cannot create anymore, that he cannot carry on; that he has to retire (from life) now.  This is also cowardice.


“…Old age in modern life is basically cowardice and laziness.


“That is why the psalmist tells us that if you have courage you will achieve a much more pleasant old age that the modern concept.  Nowadays, the greatest problem for the aged is what to do with their time.  Years ago, man also got old, but then there was no question about what to do with time.  They used to go to shul and study a blatt of Gemara.  I knew people who were eighty-five or ninety.  They used to come to the beis medrash where I learned.  They came regularly every night.  They used to take out a Gemara, light a candle, and study for a couple of hours.  They had a feeling for time.  Time was precious to them, as it is to everyone.  There was no problem, for the elderly, of what to do to pass the time.


“One old man recently told me that, thank G-d, he today has no financial problems.  This has always been his main preoccupation, and now he does not know what to do with his time.  This is his main problem.  I told him that with your time you can do a lot.  Just be careful that the Almighty does not take time away from you!” (The Rav, v.2, p.3-4).  


On Sunday night, the eve of Taanis Esther 5746 (1986) Hatzalah was called.  Rav Moshe (Feinstein) zt’l had to be rushed to the hospital immediately.  As the ambulance went speeding through the streets, he felt his strength waning.  He then said, “Ich hob mehr nisht ken ko’ach (I have no more strength).” Those were his last words.


“How much strength had he had for the last several years?  Very little, but whatever strength was left in him was devoted to Hashem, to Torah and to the klal.  As long as he had strength - any strength - his service continued.  He would not stop working at his full capacity, as he had for ninety-one years.  And then, he had no more strength… It has been pointed out that the 5,746th verse in Torah reads: And it came to pass after Moshe had finished writing down the words of this Torah in a book to the very end (Devarim 31:24).  Appropriate words for the gadol who was named after Moshe Rabbeinu, and who passed away in the year 5746” (Reb Moshe, 25th yarzheit edition, Artscroll, p.490).


The psalmist beseeches G-d: אַל-תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי, לְעֵת זִקְנָה כִּכְלוֹת כֹּחִי, אַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי - Do not cast me away at the time of old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me (Ps.71:9).  Not only do we ask G-d to support us, but we must make use of every day, hour and moment, to serve Hashem and His people as best as we can in the time we are allotted.  For our nation depends on the youth and the elderly, and the bridge between the past and future, so we can build in the present. 


בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום

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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Ruth Peyser Kestenbaum and Miriam & Alan Goldberg to mark the tenth yahrtzeit of their father, Irwin Peyser, Harav Yisroel Chaim ben R' Dovid V' Fraidah Raizel Peyser