Several weeks ago, I received the following text message:
“Quick question – I am sitting on a bus, older man standing right next to me. Not sure how old he is, but I think possibly old enough that I should be standing for him. I’d like to offer him my seat but I don’t want to upset him by having him think that I think he looks old. What should I do?”
I was deeply impressed by this query, one which reflects a genuine concern for the halacha and profound sensitivity towards the feelings of a complete stranger. I must admit, this question brought me tremendous personal nachas (particularly because it came from one of my children).
The mitzvah to stand for an elderly person is recorded in this week’s parsha. In Vayikra 19:32, the Torah states: “מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם וְהָדַרְתָּ פְּנֵי זָקֵן וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹקֶיךָ אֲנִי ה”, “Rise in the presence of the elderly, show respect for the learned, and revere your God; I am Hashem.” Displaying honor and rising for an elderly or learned individual is not merely a gracious act of piety; it is, in fact, a biblical obligation. The Torah instructs us to exhibit a prominent and noticeable display of honor and respect for our elders, sages, and teachers.
While this particular mitzvah may seem relatively simple, both in definition and practice, the parameters, guidelines, and details of this mitzvah, like all mitzvot, are quite complex. Consider the following questions:
- Must one rise to honor of an elderly individual who is antagonistic towards Torah teachings and values?
- In what specific location(s) should one would not stand for a teacher?
- Must/may one disrupt the study of Torah to stand for an elder?
- Must/may one interrupt his/her vocational duties to stand for an elder?
- After standing for an elder, when may one resume his sitting position?
- When one becomes aware of his teacher’s presence, may he close his eyes, pretending not to see him, in order to circumvent the obligation to stand?
- Must a teacher make an effort to avoid unnecessarily strolling in the presence of his students and be mindful of the inconvenience of their having to stand?
These are only several of the most relevant questions that are discussed in the TaImud and commentaries. Remarkably, Chazal trace the answers to each of these questions back to that single aforementioned verse. It is a pasuk no more than 10 words, from which our rabbis glean a multitude of principles and laws.
Other related questions include:
- For the purpose of this mitzvah, at what age is one considered an elder?
- May one who is observing shiva stand for an elder or teacher?
- Should one disrupt his davening to stand for another?
- May one fulfill the requirement of standing when leaning against a wall?
- Is there a limit as to how many times one must stand in a given period of time?
- Is one required to stand for an elder who is blind?
(For a more comprehensive treatment of these and related halachos, see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 244 and related commentaries.)
In our modern world and “progressive” society, title and status are most likely to be granted to one who wields wealth, power and fame. We are expected to respect one who carries the skills to be most productive, rather than those individuals who possess the most experience. Youthfulness is often times valued over age and wit generally impresses more than wisdom. It would do us well to embrace the teachings of our Torah and appreciate the timeless lessons contained within. Let us take a moment to rediscover the values and truth embedded in this most underappreciated mitzvah. For when it comes to matters as fundamental as these, it is quite helpful to know where you stand.