January 19, 2020

The Mitzvah to Honor the Elderly: How Is America Doing?

In America today, it often seems like the broader society prioritizes respect for those with the most wealth or with the best looks. We see it constantly in the barrage of media that attacks our nervous systems, whether it is the latest television program, film, or advertising campaigns for the trendiest new tech. Relatedly, much attention in our social spheres is placed on young people; thus, the young are often prioritized over the old. But in Jewish thought and expressed through the timeless Jewish values, the priority is the opposite: wisdom and age, especially for those who have made it into their sunset years, is the preeminent value to cherish and honor.

Yet, the most immediate question is: Why should we give priority to the old over the moldable potential of youth? Why does Jewish thought point in the opposite direction? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains this concept well. He writes:

In contemporary society, which places such emphasis on one’s physical appearance, our value can only decrease with time… the Jewish emphasis on wisdom and experience suggests that our value can continue to increase throughout life (The Book of Jewish Values, 288).

One of the cornerstones of Judaism’s veneration of seniors is the acquired access to knowledge through a lifetime of experience. While being young provides opportunities to experience the world, the process of aging doesn’t only change the body in physical ways, but allows for the ability to internalize the vastness of world. Thus, the benefits of age are not only pecuniary and material, but spiritual and knowledge-based. Besides, the rabbis teach that people—if they invest in their learning correctly—become wiser with age, acquiring a wealth that goes beyond tangible earnings:

As regards scholars, the older they become the more wisdom they acquire… But as regards the ignorant, the older they become, the more foolish they become (BT Shabbat 152a).

In this conception of aging and growing in one’s wisdom, the ability to gain knowledge can be easily offset by the ability to ignore. Through this lens, we understand that people also have the capability to become more ignorant and closed-minded with age. Thus, it is incumbent on us to encourage opportunities for learning and continued growth for our senior friends and neighbors. It is vital we help cater to this population’s hunger for pursuits that nourish the soul and the mind.  We cannot neglect their intellectual needs and spiritual growth as much as their physical well-being. And when some have erred or stumbled in their understanding, it should not affect the honor we show to seniors, as the rabbis explain:

Show respect to an old man who has forgotten his learning through no fault of his own, for we have learned that the fragments of the old tablets [of the Ten Commandments which Moses shattered] were kept alongside the new tablets in the Ark of the Covenant (BT Berakhot 8b).

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, himself a powerful role model of how wisdom and age can shape society, teaches that the way we treat our elderly citizens signals much about the virtues found in our society:

A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture (The Insecurity of Freedom, 72).

Respect is not merely about religious wisdom, but about life experience, which is why the rabbis included the gentile elderly:

You shall rise before the aged” means any aged… Rabbi Yochanan used to rise in the presence of aged non-Jews, saying, “How many experiences have happened to these people! (BT Kiddushin 33a).

American society has a mixed record in providing for the well-being of seniors. The passage of Social Security in 1935 dramatically lowered the elderly poverty rate for nearly half a century, and Medicare (1965) has provided low-cost medical care for the elderly. However, in the past generation, the impact of income inequality and stagnant benefit levels has placed tens of millions of elderly Americans in economic insecurity.

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the average monthly benefit as of January 2017 was $1,360, with a raise of only $5/month from 2016. The SSA estimates that about 43 percent of single recipients depend on this check for 90 percent of their income. In addition, 2.1 million elderly Americans only receive Supplemental Security Income, which averages $435/month. Even if one receives a relatively high monthly Social Security payment, it is nearly impossible to survive. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in California is about $1,350, and in a 2016 survey of 50 American cities, the median monthly rent was more than $1,230 plus utilities. Maintaining a house is even more difficult. Consider the following:

  • Among elderly heads of household, a third have either no money or are in debt at the end of each month.
  • More than 60 percent of households headed by someone 60 or older carry debt, and the median debt is estimated to be nearly $41,000.
  • As of 2012, 3.5-million elderly homeowners had no home equity and were hopelessly behind on their loans.

To make matters worse, Medicare does not cover activities of daily living (which include help with dressing and bathing) or long-term care. As a result, many elderly people are forced to consider nursing home care, but cannot afford the cost of more than $80,000 per year. The alternative is to deplete one’s resources and then fall back on Medicaid to pay for nursing home care. In a study funded by the Centers for Medicare & Medicare Services (CMS), researchers from Truven Health Analytics noted that, for long-term services and supports (LTSS), Medicaid accounted for more than 60 percent of total funding in 2010. In all, 45 percent of Medicare beneficiaries were elderly patients. More than 1.4 million received institutional care (updated estimates cite 2.2 million), mostly nursing care (87 percent), with psychiatric and mental health facilities also included (for example, 135,508 of 146,794 LTSS recipients using Medicaid in California were for nursing facilities).

Current saving patterns portend a poor future for American retirees. According to a recent banking survey of retirement savings, among those age 55 and older, 28 percent have nothing saved and another 17 percent have less than $10,000. At the same time, the current Republican House budget proposal would cut Medicare and Social Security by billions of dollars, and the recent Republican healthcare proposals would have ended Medicaid expansion.

If we wish to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring seniors, we must ensure that we understand their plight and take active measures to ensure that they have a dignified existence into their golden years. When we write-off the accomplishments and wisdom of our elders, not only do we place ourselves at a disadvantage, we lose valuable knowledge that can positively shape the future; all that is old is new again. We can’t allow the temptations of the “new” to dissuade from our obligations of care for seniors.  Disregarding the full respect that the senior population needs (and deserves) is an abdication and aberration of the moral mandate to take care of those who have come before us. May we fulfill the obligation to treat the elderly among us with pure hearts and open minds by giving them the respect they merit by virtue of their very existence.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of eleven books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.