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Parashiot Aharei Mot / Kedoshim 5781

April 23, 2021

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A D’var Torah for Parashiot Aharei Mot / Kedoshim
By Rabbi Jill Hackell (’13)

You shall rise before the aged and respect the elderly; you shall fear your God, I am the Lord.” [Leviticus 19:32]

This verse is found in parashat Kedoshim, a parashah which begins with Moses transmitting these words of God to the community of Israel: “You shall be holy [kedoshim tehiyu], for I, the Lord God, am holy.” [19:1-2] What does it mean to be holy? What does God ask of us? Let’s look at our verse as an example.

At one time, Israeli buses displayed the first part of this verse – mip’nei siva takum – literally, ‘Rise before the gray-hairs’, on signs, to remind younger riders that society expects them to give up their seats to their elders. What a wonderful way to create a society which teaches the value of respect towards one’s elders! In fact, it shouldn’t be difficult at all to embody this value, since all of us could expect in time to be the recipient of such kindness and respect ourselves.

But in society today, this message is drowned out with messages that promote the undesirability of aging. Spend half-an-hour in front of a TV set, and you will learn that gray hair must be banished, incipient wrinkles must be treated with fancy serums and injections, and lotions must be applied to assure “younger-looking skin”. One must be ever vigilant, lest the signs of getting older sneak up on us.

And if they do, we risk being assigned to the category of “elderly”, which comes with all the baggage that stereotyping brings with it.  Judged by our looks, we are ignored, not listened to, passed over; we are assumed to be doddering, forgetful, and irrelevant. And so, we work to hide the physical signs of the passage of our years and pride ourselves on looking younger than we are.

One of the interesting side-effects of this long year of quarantining away from COVID has been that my friends have given up going to their hairdressers for monthly dyeing, highlights, and touch-ups. As a result, natural grays have appeared everywhere. And they are beautiful!

Which brings me to the second part of this verse – ve’hadarta p’nei zaken – literally, ‘respect the faces of the elderly’. We all come by our gray hairs and wrinkles honestly. They are a result of the aging process, and each and every human being on the planet will age, despite our denial. The Hebrew Home for the Aged publishes a calendar each year which features close-ups of the faces of their residents who are centenarians. Sparkling eyes peer out of faces marked with the scars of living. And they are beautiful!

The 20th century Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, wrote that the face of the “other” – another human being – is the source of our sense of responsibility. He sees our relationship to other human beings as the most basic thing, the building block of religion and of ethics. Seeing the face of the other is necessary before we can understand God, or how we should live our lives. Levinas says that when we look into the eyes of another human being, the Torah’s commandments become obvious to us. In his words, “to see a face is already to hear ‘You shall not kill’, and to hear ‘You shall not kill’ is already to hear ‘social justice’”( Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism).

The call of parashat Kedoshim is the call to rid ourselves of ageism, along with the other “isms” that allow us to see our fellows as less than. In addition to respecting the elder, we are asked to make sure there is food for the poor and the stranger [19:9-10], that workers are paid on time [19:13], that we include and respect the disabled [19:14], that we don’t cheat others in business [19:35].  We must respect the individuality and dignity of each person we meet, regardless of the way they look or their status or role in society.  Our parashah sums this up when it says, “Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.” [19:18].
Rabbi Jill Hackell M.D. (AJR ’13) is the rabbi of West Clarkstown Jewish Center in New City, N.Y. She also serves on the AJR Board, as liaison to ARC (Association of Rabbis and Cantors), and teaches bioethics in both secular and Jewish settings