Parshas Kedoshim contains the mitzvah of giving honour to the elderly and to the learned:
In the presence of the elderly you shall rise, and you shall honour the presence of a sage; you shall revere your G-d; I am Hashem. (19:32)
Why does this mitzvah conclude with the ominous warning, “And you shall revere your G-d?” Rashi explains that in many circumstances one might be tempted to absolve oneself from the mitzvah of rising and giving honour to the elderly/scholar by claiming he didn’t notice them (think about this for a moment and you’ll realize just how easy and how common such behaviour is). Therefore the Torah warns, “And you shall revere your G-d,” for although others might not realize you’re feigning not having noticed, Hashem knows the truth!
Perhaps we can offer an additional connection of the beginning of the verse to its end based on the following story:
A West Coast lumber merchant once came to a well known and respected Torah sage to seek his counsel and blessing in his lumber dealings. After addressing the businessman’s concerns to his satisfaction, the merchant thanked the sage, and got up to leave.
Before he could go, however, the sage called him back and asked how his children, who were studying in public school, were doing. (A few years previously, he had attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince the merchant to enrol his children in the local Yeshiva.)
“My kids are doing great!” replied the proud father. “They get high marks in school, and have each made the honour roll the last three years! I’m confident they’ll be accepted in a top-notch university…”
“And what’s doing with their Jewish education – why don’t you sent them to a yeshivah, so that they should grow to be knowledgeable and G-d- fearing Jews?”
“Rebbe, you don’t understand: It’s a different world here in America. The neighbourhood I live in… their friends… We don’t live in the ghetto anymore; I want my children to get an education that will stand them well in the modern world!”
“The Torah applies to all times and places,” insisted the sage. “America is no different. You can – and ought – to give your children a Jewish education.” As in the past, the businessman would not relent. The sage argued, cajoled and berated, yet still the visitor remained adamant in his refusal to give his children a yeshiva education.
“I don’t understand,” the frustrated rebbe finally said. “I have never engaged in business; all my life I have studied Torah. Yet you came all the way from California to seek my advise on your most important business decisions. You trust me implicitly, and do whatever I tell you, although I readily admit knowing very little about your industry! Yet regarding the education of your children – a field to which I have devoted my entire life – you tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about!”
Perhaps the connection is as follows: In the presence of the elderly you shall rise, and you shall honour the presence of a sage – i.e. the Torah encourages us to honour the wise and elderly of our generation, both by outward expressions of respect, and by seeking their advice and counsel. In this regard, the verse concludes: And you shall revere your G-d – make sure that you pursue their wisdom not only in areas of finance and medicine, as we are wont to do, but also in areas which affect your Yiras Shamayim (fear of G-d) as well, for this is their true area of expertise!
A revered tzaddik once complained: “Ever since I became a communal leader, people come to me night and day with requests for advice and prayers for the sick, and blessings for sustenance and success. Yet almost nobody comes to ask me where their avodas Hashem (service of G-d) is lacking, or which aspects of their character need the most work. They’ve got things all backwards! With regard to parnassah, the Torah says (Devarim/Deuteronomy 8:18), “And remember Hashem, your G-d, for He is the one who gives you the ability to earn a living!” With regard to the sick, we say in our prayers, “Hashem heals the sick!” Yet for these things they beat a path to my door. But when it comes to fear of Heaven, regarding which the Gemara (Berachos 33b) says, “Everything is in the hands of Hashem except one’s fear of Heaven,” nobody has anything to ask!”
Why is it that we are so quick to pick up the phone for business advice, yet we seem to drag our feet when it comes to asking for help with our spirituality? One might be tempted to say that this proves our money is more important to us than our neshamos. Or maybe the idea is this: We realize that while a good business idea can be implemented on a whim – buy this, sell that – self-improvement and self-analysis is a painstaking process that requires time, effort, and dedication. We shy away from asking for the advice of the wise, because deep down we know it means we’re obligating ourselves to take the time and make the effort of following their advice, and actually working towards developing our character.
Perhaps this is why the Torah expresses this mitzvah by stating, “Get up before the elderly and wise,” instead of just warning us to show them honour and respect. It’s as if to say, “Get up off of your comfortable armchair, stop procrastinating, and seek out the counsel of the wise and elderly in areas where they can really make a lasting difference in your life!”
Have a good Shabbos.
In loving memory of R’ Chaim ben Yaakov Hoffmann, who passed away 8 Iyar, 5761.