"He (Yehuda ben Teima) used to say; the age of five for the written law, the age of ten for Mishne ... the age of sixty for zikna (literally old), the age of seventy for seiva " (Pirkei Avot 5:22). While today we consider a life of sixty years to be tragically short in Talmudic times reaching such a milestone was no small feat. Nonetheless the zikna of our mishna is not referring to chronological age. It is seiva , the age of 70 that refers to an elderly person and represents the biblical depiction of long life. "The days of our years among them are seventy years and if with strength eighty years" (Tehillim 90). Rather zikna refers to acquired wisdom.
This past Shabbat we read that "You shall stand before a seiva and Vhadarta pnei zaken ", give respect to the zaken (Vayikra 19:32). Using a play on words, the Rabbis associated the term zaken with ze shekana chochma , the one who acquires wisdom (Kiddushin 32b). The Torah obligates us to honour both the zaken , the one who is wise and the seivah , the one who is elderly. It appears that in essence there is one command, namely that we honour wisdom. And wisdom can be acquired in one of two ways - by the accumulation of knowledge and by life experience.
These two forms of wisdom are universal. "Who is the wise person? One who learns from kol adam , from all people (Pirkei Avot 4:1), from those who are observant and those who are not, from Jews and non Jews, young and old, teacher and student. Jewish law demands that we recite a blessing when in the presence of a non-Jewish scholar (Orach Chaim 234:7) and even an elderly idol worshipper must be honoured (Yoreh Deah 244:7).
The wisdom accumulated during the many experiences of life is often more valuable than wisdom acquired through much study. Thus Jewish law insists that the young budding Torah scholar must stand before the elderly. Interestingly the Torah in requiring honour for the elderly and wise does not use the natural term for honor, kavod but rather uses the phrase hadar , beauty. Beauty, wisdom and the maturity of years are to go hand in hand. Judaism long ago recognized that beauty increases over time, the more time one spends with the wise the more beauty becomes manifest.
What is true of an individual is even more compelling for a nation. Vhadarta pnei zaken , we must "respect the elderly"; the mature, beautiful, wise country that enabled the Jewish world to rise from the dead. What the State of Israel has accomplished in 60 short years others can only dream to accomplish in 600 or 6,000.
Ki Mitzion Teze Torah udvar Hashem M'Yerushalayim . Israel is the centre of Jewish life, Jewish learning and Jewish living. Using the unbelievable wisdom of its immigrants from the four corners of the world, Israel has built, against all odds, a thriving country, Jewishly, economically and culturally. The list of inventions and innovative thought emanating from Israel is truly mindboggling. But the tremendous wisdom and beauty that is Israel has not come easily. The Talmud's description of zaken is ze shekana chochma - literally one who buys, or acquires wisdom. In order to buy something one must pay a price; for something very valuable one is willing to pay a high price, and Israel has been forced to pay a very high price.
The Mishne in Pirkei Avot defines the wise person as one who is continually learning " halomed " in the present tense. Much has been learned over the past 60 years yet much remains to be learned. And in my mind there is one overarching lesson on which we must focus. We must learn to embrace the diverse voices of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland, learning to live together as one people. We must discuss and dialogue even as we fiercely debate, with those whose views may be fundamentally different from our own. The greatest piece of wisdom that Jewish history has taught us is that internal discord is the death knell for the community of Israel . Only when there is love, concern and respect for all Jews can we hope to be able in live in peace with our neighbours. May G-d grant us the wisdom to apply this lesson in the beautiful land of Israel and beyond.