“Excuse me? Are you talking to me?….I’m looking around but I don’t see anyone else here?! Oh my God, you ARE talking to me!”
This seems to be the feeling that many people of a certain age experienced three years ago at this season when the Coronavirus pandemic started. As the threat to older people emerged, many were surprised to discover that it was they themselves who were being addressed as the aged population who were particularly at risk. Many humorous though poignant memes circled social media capturing the sense of shock that accompanied being called out by that age; the sense of disbelief and undeniability at the number of years passed circling the sun, the abrupt dissolution of some cognitive dissonance about having qualified – even if only ‘technically’ – as a “senior”, and by the wonder of it…
This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, offers some perspective.
The portion opens with the waiting finally over: Moses is able to go ahead and initiate performance of the ceremony to dedicate and begin using the long-awaited and painstakingly constructed mishkan, which was to be the mechanism for divine leadership among the people from now on. “On the eighth day, Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel…” [Vayikra 9:1] and told them to bring the necessary animals for the inaugural sacrifices on the alter.
The elders of the community are singled out for this essential leadership and spiritual task, accompanying the formal leaders chosen by God (Moses and Aaron, along with his sons in the priestly caste). This is not the only time that God and Moses include the elders.
The 2nd century mystical sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai noted other instances when the elders play a key role in establishing Israel’s destiny. He says in Vayikra Rabbah:
“We find that the Holy One Blessed be He bestowed honor upon the elderly very frequently.
At the burning bush: ‘go and gather the elders of Israel’;
In Egypt: ‘and you and the elders of Israel shall approach…’;
At Sinai: ‘go up to the Lord, you… and 70 of the elders of Israel’;
In the desert, ‘gather unto me 70 men from among the elders of Israel’;
At the tent of meeting, ‘Moses called upon… The elders of Israel’;
Honor – yes, but the examples that Rabbi Shimon cites are also ‘action items.’ The elders have work to do, important purpose, are an essential part of God’s plan and an indispensable leadership resource for Moses; The elders are the ones that the community relies on and looks to at all those decisive moments in which the people’s destiny is determined.
Rabbi Shimon concludes: “And in the messianic future the Holy One will again bestow honor upon the elderly, as it is written (Isaiah 24:23), ‘the moon will be embarrassed and the sun ashamed, for the God of Hosts will reign upon Mount Zion and Jerusalem, and God’s elders will be granted honor’.
How do the elders experience their special role to play? What do they think about it all? Are they as bemused and surprised to find themselves singled out by their age as so many of you might have been just a couple of years ago?
How do you see not only yourself differently now that your age has been called out, but how do you see your role as ‘an elder’ differently now, as ‘an elder’ in your family and in our community? What wisdom of life are you called upon to share, what tasks to perform, what connections to be made, what honors to accept, embrace, and fulfill?
Rabbi Michael Schwartz