Jews have a reputation for being dramatically argumentative. Opinions are pronounced vociferously. Everyone interrupts everyone else. It is perhaps not widely known that interrupting an elder is not only rude but is prohibited by Jewish law. As a religious system, Jewish law legislates about matters outside the bounds of secular law. Matters that secular society sees as ethical, but voluntary, are seen by Judaism as mandatory.
This week’s parasha provides a section of the framework of laws governing the treatment of elders. It contains the first instance of what is to become a sadly familiar and repeated theme: the complaints of the Israelites as they wander in the wilderness. Moses, in turn, complains to God:
Why have I not enjoyed your favor, that you have laid the burden of all this people upon me? I cannot carry all this people alone. (Numbers 11:11; 14)
God responds by instructing Moses to gather seventy elders to help him with that burden. (Numbers 11:16-17) A midrash quotes this verse as a basis for discussing responsibilities toward an elder. Besides not interrupting him, it is forbidden to sit or stand in his place or to contradict him, and it is required to rise in his presence. (Numbers Rabbah 15:17; see also Kiddushin 32b and following) These regulations protected the honor of elders; at the same time, elders had responsibilities toward the public. Thus, the midrash also relates a story told by the sage Abba ha-kohen bar Papa. When he would be walking on a road and see a group of people ahead of him, he would take another road so as not to trouble them to rise in his presence. Another sage, Rabi Yosei criticized the behavior of Abba ha-kohen. he tells him he should have passed in front of those people and afforded them the opportunity to rise in his presence and thus express awe for God. In other words, giving honor to an elder or a sage is akin to honoring God.
When read together, Torah and Midrash provide a description of what the relationship between the Jewish public and its elders should be. Elders exercise authority not for their own glorification, but for that of God. Although the concept of the honor due to elders might seem to lead to authoritarianism, it actually promotes democracy. Moses’s sharing of power with the elders of his day provided a way to safeguard against dictatorship. Even today, the honoring of elders by the wider public — and the recognition of elders that such honor not be abused, can help educate people of all ages that mutual obligations benefit all members of society.
The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.