The Value of Mistakes

You shall rise before an elderly person and you shall respect the wise, and you shall fear your G-d. I am Hashem. (Sefer VaYikra 19:32)

Respect for the elderly and for the dignity of human life

The above is one of the various translations provided by the commentators for this passage.  The consensus among the traditional translations is that the passage describes two obligations.  We are required to demonstrate reverence for the elderly and we are commanded to act with respect toward the wise.

It is interesting that the Torah places both obligations in the same passage.  The two obligations seem to reflect different values.  Treating the elderly with respect is a social obligation.  It is a recognition of human dignity. We are recognizing that life is sacred. 

It is important to understand the significance of this outlook.  Our contemporary society assesses the value of a person based upon one’s productivity or productive potential.  The greater one’s productivity – often measured by one’s income or earning potential – the greater our assessment of the person’s value.  An unfortunate outcome of this outlook is the manner in which we treat those who are less productive.  The poor are often ignored.  Many of our elderly do not receive proper care and receive even less attention.

The Torah’s perspective is that the sanctity of the individual human being is not dependent upon one’s productivity.  Even a person who is in a comma from which there is no hope of recovery must be treated with absolute dignity.  Our perspective on the dignity and sanctity of the of the individual has many implications.  Let us consider one of these.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not fully reap the corner of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.  (Sefer VaYikra 19:9)

Giving charity and preserving human dignity

The passage above describes two forms of tzedakah – charity – that are performed at the time of harvest.  The farmer is commanded to not completely reap the standing grain of his field.  A portion of the field’s grain is to be left unharvested.  This grain is reserved for the poor. They are permitted to enter the field and collect it for themselves. 

The farmer is also required to leave uncollected the occasional stalk of grain that falls to the ground during the reaping process.  These stalks are left for the poor. 

These are just two of the many mitzvot in the Torah that provide support for the poor.  In addition to these two mitzvot and various other specific forms of charity, the Torah includes a general commandment to provide the poor with their needs.  In his discussion of this general obligation, Maimonides comments that we are required to treat the poor person with care.  We must act toward him with respect and we must preserve his dignity. 

And Boaz said to Ruth: Have you not heard, my daughter? Do not go to glean in another field, neither shall you go away from here, and here you shall stay with my maidens.  (Megilat Ruth 2:8)

Boaz’s treatment of Ruth

The implementation of Maimonides’ ruling is evident in the above passage.  In this passage Boaz speaks to Ruth and asks her to collect gleanings only from his field.  Ruth is an impoverished, homeless, stranger.  She is the person who in our contemporary society is too often treated as human refuse.  Boaz appeals to Ruth and asks that she act with kindness to him and collect only from his field.  He does not speak with condescension. He asks her to perform a kindness to him.  His concern is not only for the sustenance of the poor but also for the dignity of those who depend on him.

And you should love Hashem your G-d with you heart and with all your soul.  (Sefer Devarim 6:5)

Love for Hashem and the pursuit of knowledge

Our respect for the wise reflects a completely different value.  In order to identify this value, let us consider the above passage.  This passage commands us to love Hashem.  How are we to accomplish this?  We cannot touch Him or see Him.  The Torah provides a unique response to this question.  Maimonides explains that the path to loving Hashem is through knowledge.  He adds that the greater one’s knowledge, the greater one’s love for Hashem.

Maimonides’ position poses some difficulties.  How does one’s knowledge promote love of Hashem?  The answer is that Hashem is the source of all that exists.  The endless wonders of the universe are expressions of His infinite wisdom.  The remarkable ways in which our world provides for our needs is an expression of His mercy.  The boundless insight of the Torah is Hashem’s wisdom and the direction it provides us is His guidance.  An ignorant person may imagine all of the kindnesses that Hashem performs for us and even imagine His wisdom but the one who studies Torah and devotes himself to the pursuit of understanding does not imagine Hashem’s wisdom and kindness; he witnesses and experiences them.

In short, knowledge leads us to Hashem.  The greater one’s knowledge the deeper one’s relationship with Hashem.  Because it is the foundation of our relationship with Hashem, the Torah places enormous emphasis upon the pursuit of knowledge.  This is the value reflected in the commandment that revere the learned and wise.  In other words, because of our assessment of the importance of knowledge, we revere those who have acquired it. 

Revering the elderly is related to revering the learned

Now, let us return to our original question.  The opening passage above commands us to honor the aged and the learned.  These two obligations seem to reflect different values.  Our respect for the elderly expresses our recognition of the sanctity of life.  Our respect for the learned expresses our estimation of the value of wisdom.  Why are these two directives combined in a single passage?

When we consider the issue further, the question becomes even greater.  Maimonides, in his code, actually seems to suggest that both directives are included in a single commandment.  In other words, a single commandment directs us to revere the learned and the aged.  How can two directives that reflect different values be included in a single commandment? 

There is an additional problem that must be considered.  Through considering this problem, we will discover the path to resolving the questions we have raised. Maimonides’ treatment of this commandment and its two components is included in his discussion of the laws of Torah study.  We can understand why the obligation to revere the learned is discussed in the context of the laws of Torah study.  It is interesting that Maimonides seems to feel that this is also the fitting context for his treatment of the obligation to respect the aged. 

Maimonides seems to be suggesting that our reverence for the aged expresses more than our recognition of the sanctity of life.  It is somehow tied also to our assessment of the importance of knowledge.  What is this connection?

Life as a teacher

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno makes a comment that provides an answer to all of these questions.  He notes that age is generally accompanied by wisdom.  In other words, we show reverence toward the aged not only because of the sanctity of life, but also because of the wisdom that we presume resides within the elderly. 

Before considering how Sforno’s observation resolves the difficulties we have outlined, let’s more closely analyze his position.  Is age actually associated with wisdom? Does getting older really make one wiser?  Observation seems to contradict this assertion.  Wisdom and foolishness seem to be well distributed in every age group.  The aged do not seem wiser than then those younger.  How can we understand Sforno’s comment?

I can best explain Sforno’s comment with a personal story.  Some time ago I spoke with a student who told me that he did not enjoy his Talmud class.  I asked the student to share with me some of the material he was studying.  He could share very little.  I suggested to the student that before judging the course and concluding that he cannot enjoy it, he apply himself and experience the study of Talmud.  Once he allows himself to have an authentic learning experience, we can have an intelligent conversation on the appropriateness of the course for the student. 

The point of this vignette is that even the best teacher can only succeed with a student who is eager to learn.  The heart and mind of the student must be open to the lessons being taught.

Life is an excellent teacher.  Experience is one of the finest instructors.  We are not always the best students.  In order to learn from life, we must take the time not only have experiences but to also contemplate and study them.  Also, we must be open to learning from our mistakes.  A mistake must be viewed as an experiment we have conducted which produced a negative outcome. What can we learn from the experiment?  How can it be revised to produce a better outcome?  Making mistakes is not bad; not learning from this is tragic. 

Sforno’s point is not that every elderly person is wise.  His point is that the elderly have spent many years in the finest university and yeshiva – the experience of life.  Some were good students; others were not.  But the person who has taken advantage of the lessons taught by a long life, is a remarkable repository of wisdom.  Because of this relationship between age and wisdom, Sforno suggests we revere the elderly. 

Now, we can return to our questions.  The Torah, in a single passage, directs us to revere the learned and the elderly.  These directives are combined in this passage because the elder is also associated with wisdom. Because both are revered as repositories of knowledge, Maimonides includes both in a single mitzvah.  Both our respect for the learned and for the aged express our appreciation of knowledge.  Finally, for this same reason, both directives belong in the laws of Torah study.

We are provided with many opportunities to acquire wisdom and knowledge.  Some are formal – our studies in the schools we attend.  We can also learn from our own experiences and from the lives of others.  Every life is a repository of invaluable experiences. Great teachers need committed students.