Along with … depictions of the hardships of aging comes a fundamentally positive view of aging. Long life is considered a reward for righteous living. While most of the mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah are mandated without assurance of reward, in the few exceptional cases long life is the promised recompense. Length of days is assured for those who honor their parents (Exod. 20:12), for those who do not remove a mother bird’s young in her presence (Deut. 22:7), and for those who employ equal measures in commerce (Deuteronomy 25:15). In addition, those who observe “all of the laws and ordinances” (Deut. 6:2) are promised "length of days." According to Proverbs 16:31, one attains old age through tzedakah, righteous living.
Many midrashim describe old age as a reward for virtuous living, such as faithful attendance at the house of study or for a life marked by righteousness and Torah. (BT Berachot 8a) An entire page of the Talmud is filled with various Rabbis’ accounts of the particular worthy deeds which explain their longevity (BT Megillah 27b). Another example of this reasoning is given by Rav Addah bar Ahaba:
The disciples of Rav Addah bar Ahaba asked him: To what do you attribute your longevity? He replied: I have never displayed any impatience in my house, and I have never walked in front of any man greater than myself, nor have I ever meditated [over the words of the Torah] in any dirty alleys, nor have I ever walked four cubits without [musing over] the Torah or without [wearing] phylacteries, nor have I ever fallen asleep in the House of Study for any length of time or even momentarily, nor have I rejoicde at the disgrace of my friends, nor have I ever called my neighbor by a nickname given to him by myself, or some say, by the nickname given to him by others. (BT Ta’anit 20b)
Old age is valued as reward and blessing, and elders are to be treated with deference and respect. In addition to the obligation to honor our parents, the Holiness Code outlines our responsibilities to older adults in general, "You shall rise before the aged (gray-haired) and show deference (hiddur) in the presence of the old (zaken); you shall fear your God: I am the Eternal" (Levi. 19:32). This mitzvah is understood to dictate deferential treatment toward scholars as well as older adults. Zaken (old) is taken to refer to people of wisdom, not just those who have attained wisdom through life experience.
The rabbis mandate an attitude of reverence toward all people over a certain age (generally sixty or seventy) (Hayye Adam 69:2). "What is the deference (hiddur) demanded by the Torah? That you not stand in his [the older person’s] place, nor contradict his words, but behave toward him with reverence and fear" (Tosefta Megillah 3 ). Included among those meriting this deferential treatment are elderly non-Jews and Jews who are neither learned nor particularly righteous, since they are assumed to have acquired understanding of God’s ways in the world through life experience (BT Kiddushin 33a). Hence, revering the elderly means recognizing the value of their experience. Even if they have forgotten their learning through dementia or other frailty, one still owes them respect: "Take care to honor the old man who has forgotten his learning for reasons beyond his control, as it is said, 'both the [second, unbroken] tablets and the broken tablets [of the Law] were kept in the Ark [of the sanctuary]'" (BT Berachot 8b). Respect for the elderly is not predicated on their capacity to contribute socially or to benefit those younger than them. They are inherently worthy, even when "broken," and are to be cherished and nurtured, just as Israel treasured the first (broken) set of tablets of the Law.
We must not merely comport ourselves so as to give honor to the older person; we must do this in such a way that the elder will know that the honor is meant specifically for him or her. For example, we must rise in the presence of older persons, but we should wait to do so until the older person is within four cubits, so that he or she will recognize that this honor is being accorded to him or her (Hayye Adam 69:3). In addition, we must reach out to older persons where they are; thus, if older persons are standing, even if we are sitting and engaged in our work, we must meet them at their level by rising as well. Clearly, tradition obligates Jews to behave with reverence for the dignity of every older person, thereby recognizing the value of that person’s experience and perspective.
We might wonder what it is about old age that makes it both desirable and deserving of respect. First and foremost, old age is associated with wisdom in Jewish tradition. The old are viewed as leaders with good counsel to impart. The people of Israel are enjoined: "Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they shall instruct you" (Deut. 32:7). Or, in the words of the book of Job: "For wisdom is with the old, and understanding with length of days." (12:12) Among the generation in the wilderness after the Exodus, it is the elders (zekenim) who are Israel’s leaders. While many sources understand zaken as a generic term for leaders of any age, the use of a term that also denotes old age surely reflects the general association of wisdom with age. The guidance of elders is seen as critical to the survival of the people of Israel: "When is Israel able to stand? When it has elders...For one who takes advice from elders never stumbles." (Exodus Rabbah 3:8)
Rabbinic doctrine urges acceptance of the elders’ opinions when there is a dispute between the generations. Even if the elders seem to be arguing for destruction and the youth for construction, the elders should be heeded, for "the tearing down of the old is building, and the building of the young is tearing down" (Megillah 31b). Perhaps elders are uniquely able to critique current conventions with the long view of experience and history. Thus the elders’ perspectives are exemplified as uniquely valuable for the guidance of the community. So inexorable is the link between old age and wisdom that the sage Bar Kappara exclaims, "If wisdom is not here, can old age be here?" (BT Berachot 39a)
Later life is not merely a time for savoring lessons gleaned from a lifetime of experience and learning. On the contrary, according to Jewish tradition, old age is a time in which we are called to continue to learn and grow. A person who has been a student of Torah in his or her youth must continue that learning (BT Yevamot 62b). Not only can we continue in old age to follow paths that have been spiritually fruitful throughout a long life, but we can also transform our life to the very last day. In explaining the verse, "Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof (Eccl. 7:8), Ruth Rabbah states, “A man may act wickedly in his youth, yet in his old age he may perform good deeds." (7:6)
Old age can be a time of broadening our concern, of involvement with others and the world around us in order to create a better life for those who will live in the future. One example of this attitude is reflected in the Talmudic understanding of the central obligation to teach a child Torah. According to the rabbis, not only is a parent obligated to teach a child, but this responsibility belongs to a grandparent as well. (BT Kiddushin 30a). Older people have a unique contribution to make to the lives of the young. One beautiful example of this is the story of Naomi, the old woman whose sons have died childless, and whose daughter-in-law, Ruth, decides to stay with her rather than returning to her people. When Ruth has a child, he is nursed by Naomi, and he is considered her son as well. The women of the village say, "...he shall be to you a restorer of your life, and a nourisher of your old age" (Ruth 4:14). Naomi is simultaneously nourished by and a nourisher of the younger generation. She represents a powerful model of generativity in old age.
One other example of concern for the future is seen in two stories about old men who involve themselves in the task of planting a tree, though skeptics around them point out that they will not live to see the fruits of their labors. In Ecclesiastes Rabbah 2:20, 1-21, a one hundred-year-old man is challenged by the emperor Hadrian as to why he wastes his time planting trees. The man answers, "If I am worthy, I shall eat; if not, just as my forefathers toiled for me, so shall I toil for my children." The emperor promises the man a reward should he live to see the trees produce figs. Indeed, the man lives, and is rewarded with riches, for the emperor says, "His Creator has honored him, so shall not I?" In the parallel tale, Honi the Circle Maker gives a similar rationale for planting a tree at age seventy (BT Ta’anit 23a) In both cases, the older adult is depicted as caring about the welfare of those yet to be born. This kind of engagement with the future is beneficial to future generations, and by providing meaning, it also sustains the elder.
We have seen that Jewish tradition offers images and understandings of aging that are radically different from those current in contemporary secular culture. Old age is affirmed as a time of meaning and possibility, even as its hardships and challenges are acknowledged. As we face our personal journeys through aging, as well as the momentous impact of the age wave on our community, we may be bolstered by this fundamentally positive view so that we can fulfill the ancient vision of Psalm 92:
The righteous will flourish like the palm tree:
They will grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
Planted in the house of the Eternal,
They shall flourish in the courts of our God.
They shall yet yield fruit even in old age;
Vigorous and fresh they shall be,
To proclaim that the Eternal is just!
[God is] my Rock, in whom there is no injustice.