“Moshe and Aaron returned to Paro, and he said to them ‘go and serve HaShem, your G-d — who, precisely, will be going?”
“And Moshe said, ‘we will be going with our children and our elders, with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and with our cattle, for it is a holiday of HaShem for us.”
“And [Paro] said to them ‘it will surely be so that HaShem will be with you, when I send you out along with your children — see that evil is before your faces. It will not be so; let the men go out and serve HaShem, for that is what you request,’ and he threw them out from Paro’s presence.” [9:9-11]
The Sifrei Drush notes that Paro agreed to send out the adults, as long as the children remained with him. Paro knew that as long as the children stayed behind, then even if the adults went out, the Nation of Israel would not survive. Moshe, of course, knew exactly the same thing, and this is why he insisted that the young people go out along with the elderly.
The next question is, why insist that the elderly also go along? Paro and his slavemasters would have had to go easy on them, once all of the younger people had left. And Moshe surely knew that the People of Israel might need to flee from the Egyptians — don’t we hear stories all the time about heroic elderly people who sent their children on to safety, knowing that they could not move quickly enough? So get the men, women and children, run the flocks along with them, and go!
Here is something that Moshe understood — and Paro did not. Paro was prepared to let all of the men go, regardless of age — he only objected to sending them “along with your children.” Moshe said, “with our children and our elders.”
Moshe knew that one could not go without the other. Without the elders, who would impart wisdom to the children? Wisdom is acquired with age. “You shall rise in front of an old person, and honor the presence of a sage, and you shall fear your G-d — I am HaShem.” [Lev. 19:32] In fact, the word for “sage” in this verse is “Zaken”, which literally means “old.” The Medrash says, based upon this verse, that we have the same obligation to stand when an elderly person approaches as in front of a scholar. Regardless of Torah knowledge, a person who has reached the age of 70 represents wisdom acquired with age, and this deserves our respect and honor.
Thus we know that the Nation of Israel was led in the desert by Moshe, Aaron, and the 70 elders — Moshe and Aaron were themselves both over 80. The Chapters of the Fathers open with: “Moshe received the Torah on Sinai, and he transmitted it to Yehoshuah, and Yehoshuah to the Elders…”
Western society has learned a great deal from Judaism and Jewish ethics, but it recognizes the contribution of our elders little more than Paro. Everyone talks about the hope of the Next Generation, but who are the role models from whom they learn — Michael Jordan and Madonna? The elderly are as good as their vigor and youth make them, and thus John Glenn is a hero because he can still fly in a spaceship. Everyone knows that the elderly are not fit to be leaders — so when Hollywood gets its hands on Moshe, the “Prince of Egypt” is converted into an action hero more than half a century younger. A factor in the last American Presidential election was the advanced age of one candidate — instead we retained one of the youngest Presidents in US history, and we have since learned (as even his greatest backers agree) that he still needs to grow up. [NB. Please do not take this as a political statement.]
This is exactly the opposite of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, who says in the Haggadah (and Talmud Brachos 12b) that “I am like a man of 70.” The story behind this statement is that the Sages wanted to appoint him as the Head of the Yeshiva at the tender age of 18. He went home to discuss the matter with his wife. She objected, “you do not have the white beard of a Sage!” That day a miracle occurred, and he grew 18 rows of white hair [Talmud Brachos 28a] — a sign from Heaven that he had acquired ancient wisdom at a young age.
Today, youth and new ideas are honored, while we forget ancient wisdom and those who brought it to us. The last thing we would want is a grey beard at age 18. Yet with all of the great technological advances in every area of life, have we ever developed a system of ethics which even approaches that which has been transmitted by our elders, ever since Moshe himself? Judaism tells us not only that we must not murder or steal, not only that we must be honest in our business, but that we must not gossip, we must not embarrass people, we must love our neighbor like ourselves. Judaism brings us laws regarding bribery and fair judgement for rich and poor which are far more strict even than those used in America today. This is ancient wisdom which modern society cannot replicate.
Let us turn to our elders, and to the lessons they bring us. Then we can acquire not just modern knowledge, but the ancient wisdom to know how to use it. Then, we will truly flourish.