There is a well-known anecdote about Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky sitting on an international flight next to a prominent Israeli politician.
Throughout the trip, Rabbi Kamenetzky’s grandchildren continuously waited on him, bringing him water, food, pillows and the like. As the plane touched ground, the politician turned and expressed astonishment at the level of respect of the Rabbi’s grandchildren—adding that he can’t get his own grandchildren to even call.
Rabbi Kamenetzky turned to the politician. “In the secular community, you teach the primacy of the theory of evolution and the fact that humans are descended from apes. Therefore, when your grandchildren see you, they see someone who is more ape-ish than their own progressed selves. We, on the other hand, believe that our ancestors were the generation to receive the Torah from G-d. Since then there has been a lowering of the generations. When my grandchildren see me,” the Rabbi concluded, “they see someone who is greater than them and deserving of their respect.”
There is a growing problem in our contemporary society when it comes to respecting our elders. This problem has been brought to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic as the safety of seniors now directly hinges on their being isolated properly and the habits of those around them. And, the unscientific jab inherent in the above story aside, it elucidates a real concern of a society that gets endlessly bogged down in its own sense of self-righteousness.
The cause for this trend is clear. The sheer speed at which things are changing in the world makes it a full-time job to keep track of the latest trends. We know that technology is advancing at an exponential rate and ethical standards are shifting and progressing from one year to the next. The sad reality is that many young people simply don’t think they have anything to learn from their elders, thereby leading to a lack of respect.
Yet we run a real risk, both ethically and intellectually, when we fall into the trap of imagining that we know best. That our well-being is more important than that of others. And that we have nothing to learn from life experience.
History repeats itself, and one who has lived through history has a unique and crucial perspective when new challenges inevitably arise.
The Hebrew word for “honor” (as in honor your parents) is kavod. As Rabbi Shai Held points out in an article for The Atlantic about the heightened moral imperative to protect the elderly during this time, the root of kavod is ‘kvd,’ the same word for “heavy” in Hebrew. The message of this dual meaning is clear. We cannot view the treatment, the respect for, the safety, or the wisdom of our seniors lightly. Like many things in our tradition, ethics aren’t just important for their deontological nature, rather they are equally important for their betterment of society as a whole.
I’m reminded of an old joke that for the past few years of my life has truly reflected my experience. When I was 16, I realized that my parents knew nothing. They had antiquated views and were wrong about almost everything important. When I was 21, I talked to my parents and, refreshingly, they were a beacon of wisdom and experience. I was amazed to see how much they had learned in just five short years.
Rabbi Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel, the Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah, and a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.