Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Shemini-THE ELDERLY:The Wings of Israel

The Wings of Israel"On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel."(Lev.9:1)

Midrash Rabah, 11:8, makes the following statement: “ Israel is compared to a bird; in the same way that a bird has wings with which to fly, likewise Israel can do nothing without their elders.”

As a bird can only achieve her nature by having wings, so does Isrel remain incomplete, without the ability to fulfill itself and its destiny, without the presence of the elderly in their midst.I was struck by something of an incongruence in this particular parable. The midrash equates the elderly with wings-does this not raise a contradiction regarding the appropriateness of the analogy? Wouldn't a birds paws or feet , which enable her to stand on the limb of a tree or on the ground , not be a more accurate point of comparison? After all, the elders usually represent a base of security, an anchor of tradition and experience that gives a community or culture a foundation and sense of continuity and linkage to a past?

The wings of a bird, by contrast, point to the capacity to take flight, to soar into unfamiliar skies and places of freedom never before explored? Do the elderly represent this dimension of Jewish experience or challenge, the ability and necessity to spread one's wings and take off into new adventures of discovery and attainment? Is not this sense of freedom and buoyant adventure better connected to youth rather than to the elderly? Isn't this parable off the mark, demanding an interpretation beyond the obvious?

I believe that the midrash provides us with an incredibly contemporary understanding of old age. Firstly, before one can fly-excuse the pun-one needs to learn to walk.The elderly represent the accumulation of experience, the wisdom of the past, the rules of life -all of which must be imparted before the young can flap their own wings, and take off by themselves. An anchor and foundation provides security and strength to a young person wishing to search in new directions for meaning and experience.

More importantly, the elderly have a vital role to play in enabling and freeing the young to reach out for the skies and explore the richness of life's many unanswered questions. In the popular mind, there exists an almost irreconcilable tension between the commitment to the past represented by the elderly and the belief in the future that defines the journey of the young. So often both directions are at odds with each other, leading to great hardship and difficulty, a generational gap that seems to require divine intervention to resolve. On the Great Sabbath, Shabbat Hagadol, the Sabbath before Passover, we read in the prophet Malachi -”I will send the prophet Elijah to you...He shall return the hearts of the fathers to their children and those of the children to their fathers.”(3;23)

Our Midrash offers us a psychological and natural solution. It is the duty, and the great opportunity of the elderly, to encourage and support the natural ability and desire of the young to spread their wings and fly! Perhaps in addition to preserving the past, the elderly can be called upon to join with Aaron and his sons to offer guidance, support and the fullest measure of their love in demonstrating their joy at the young person's willingness to soar to the heights of heaven in pursuit of her dreams. In a psychological way, the elderly are empowered to release the young from the Oedipal attachments that create fear, confusion and paralysis in the lives of so many of the sons and daughters of Israel.Perhaps this is what Moses meant when he unequivocally declared before Pharaoh- “We shall go with our young and our old” (Exodus 10:9)-toward the great gateways of life leading to greater freedom and fulfillment. This is the path of freedom so important to recognize as we anticipate the Festival of Freedom, the festival of Passover, which will be celebrated in peace and freedom, we pray, in less than 30 days from today.

Shabbat Shalom.

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