New Ways of Looking at the Old

Ian Pear

An old adage declares that "youth is wasted on the young." In proffering such a statement, our declarant—no doubt a member of the 'older generation'—implies that youth, with all its vigor and fortitude, would be better allocated to those with the ability to appreciate it and maximize its benefit. "If only the elderly," one hears him bemoan, "were given the potency of youth to implement their wisdom and experience."

The goal of this paper, at least in a general sense, is to refute the notion expressed above. To be sure, one cannot deny that many a young person foolishly squandered the benefit of their youth, just as it is equally true that society would no doubt benefit from the increased physical strength of wise elders. This paradigm, however, is not the point; at least, it is not the point Judaism wishes to convey.

In its stead, Judaism admits -- seemingly with little regret -- that older adults do grow physically weaker, cannot maintain the schedule they once pursued, nor accomplish at 80 what one achieved at 40. And that's great! After all, Judaism envisions a completely and qualitatively different role for the older adult than it does for the younger one. They are the Sabbatical year in comparison with the six years of farming. They are the Shabbat in comparison with the six days of labor. Rather than insisting that the older adult struggle to keep up with his younger colleagues, to be a seventh year of toiling in the fields, or simply 'retire' in defeat at trying, Judaism suggests playing an entirely distinct role. Exploring this role, and more specifically, exploring how we as educators can ensure that it is successfully adopted by our senior students, is the topic of my paper.

In addressing this topic, I made use of three distinct forms of research: 1) Prescriptive analyses based on the study of Torah texts relating to elderhood and the aging process, 2) Descriptive explanations of senior citizen behavior emanating from psychological perspectives on aging, and 3) Empirical data, such as surveys of professional educators and interviews with senior citizens, analyzing older adult education. Each form of research added a unique dimension to my understanding of the issue, which in turn produced the following conclusions:

  • The Torah envisions a leadership role within the Jewish community for senior citizens. Indeed, they are to serve as models of godliness whose purpose includes inspiring those of different generations to draw closer to God. This role is best characterized by halachik discussions pertaining to the mitzvah of mipnai sayvah takoom ("One must stand in honor before the elderly").
  • This vision includes attendant obligations for older adults. Specifically, in light of their elevated status, it is crucial -- for both the senior and the community -- that the older adult continue to grow intellectually and spiritually, retain a positive attitude and contribute to the community. These obligations can be learned out of an analysis of Abraham's life.
  • Any program attempting to educate senior citizens must take into consideration the above two factors. When they do, such programs will not only address the physical needs of older adult students, but will also evoke the emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs and abilities of seniors. Such an approach will include rigorous study and serious learning, representative of the elevated status Judaism bestows upon older adults.
Download Article (MSWord 76K) Back to Journals 98-99 Bio

Copyright 2000-2010 ATID. All rights reserved.