We live in a world that worships youth. Whether in TV or on the catwalk, youthfulness is cool, daring, and attractive. Older people are at times, too old for a particular job, are made to look out of touch in movies, and (some) feel a need to inject themselves with Botox to somehow fend off the years!
In Judaism, we have a sense that age is realted to differently. It is addressed with veneration; it is something that we prize. Sefer Vayikra tells us:
"מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם וְהָדַרְתָּ פְּנֵי זָקֵן"
"'Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly" (19:32)
In Judaism we recognize age - זקנה - as related to sagacity and wisdom (age-sage… is there an English connection too?) and we encourage the young to revere and cherish the older generation as an invaluable resource.
זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דּוֹר וָדוֹר שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ.
Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you. (Devarim 32)
I mention this topic because I had a couple of new insights to the topic this week. We have a family practice of studying Pirkei Avot every Seuda Shelishit during the summer. This week, we related to the topic of old and young in a series of Mishnayot (that I had never perceived as a series until now!)
4:25 Elisha ben Avuyah used to say: He who learns as a child, what is he like? He is like ink written on new paper. He who learns as an old man, what is he like? He is like ink written on "erased" paper.
4:26. Rabbi Yosi bar Judah of Kefar ha-Bavli said: He who learns from the young, what is he like? He is like one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine fresh from his wine press. But he who learns from the aged, what is he like? He is like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine.
4: 27. Rabbi Meir used to say: Do not look at the flask but at what is in it; there may be a new flask that is full of old wine and an old flask that does not even have new wine in it.
4:25 talks about the fresh mind of children, or is it youths in general, (…or until what age may a person be termed a ילד?) in which every new piece of data makes an indelible mark, in which a child has a special capacity to absorb new information without any interference. The older person, is like writing on paper from which text has been erased. I think this means that the paper is marked, even if it is erased; one finding it difficult to undo previous misconceptions and misperceptions. New information must be configured into an already organized brain and seeks to find its place amongst the existent data.
(Interestingly the Talmud in Chagiga 14a-b records the way that Elisha Ben Avuya had a fatalist attitude, convincing himself that he was unable to change from his heresy and rejection of a Torah lifestyle. This Mishna too, reflects the feeling of "too little too late," and the inability to engage in a full experience of Torah due to the scars of prior experience.)
4:26 Rabbi Yossi bar Yehuda proposes that the old have an advantage over the young. Their minds are mature like old wine. In contrast, the minds of the young are unripe, sharp in taste, sour. Their knowledge is raw, untried and untested, full of unbridled adolescent passion and idealism. But it is as if the youthful minds lack the ability to truly process the knowledge, to understand its far-reaching implications, to foresee its effects. Time allows one discipline to enhance another. The experience of life is the understanding of ideas that have succeeded and failed, a perspective that discerns between that which is fundamental and that which is peripheral. The older a person, the more his knowledge has developed, deepened, undergone a process of integration and cross-fertilization, of thoughtful reflection, of selection and rejection.
This is reminiscent of the Talmudic saying of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar:
If elders say "destroy" and children say to "build" – destroy and don't build, for the destruction of elders constitutes an act of construction, and the building of youths is, in fact, an act of destruction. The indication of this principle is the story of Rechavam, son of Shlomo. (Megilla 31b)
Is Rav Yossi arguing with Elisha ben Avuya? Or do they agree – teach the young, but learn only from the old?
Would the Educational Psychologist concur? Do children and youth exhibit the power of data retention, as opposed to an older person's ability to process and apply knowledge? And should our educational curriculum follow this dichotomy?
In reading Rabbi Meir in 4:27, it would seem that he disagrees with this sharp distinction based upon age. He argues that one must not judge a book by its cover, or a person in accordance with their age. Some young people exhibit extraordinary wisdom, insight and sensitivity. Some mature adults reflect an immaturity and have little to share in knowledge or worldly advice. Rabbi Meir cautions us to afford young people the opportunity to prove themselves, and not to automatically defer to the elderly unless they offer insight and vision.