The Older the Better (Shabbos 43)
The tension was rising in the room. The viceroy of Egypt had just threatened to detain the youngest of Yaakov’s sons. But Yehuda would have none of it. He was about to take matters into his own hands when Yosef decided it was time to reveal himself to his brothers. After more than two decades since they’d sold him into slavery, he finally declared, “I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?”
Yaakov was indeed still alive and Yosef was overjoyed at the thought of being reunited with his aged father. The Torah states, “And to his father, he sent the following: ten donkeys laden with all the best of Egypt.” Our Sages explain that the “best of Egypt” refers to aged wine, which “pleases seniors.”
Doesn’t aged wine please everyone? Why are seniors specially singled out for their enjoyment of a fine wine?
אָמַר רַבָּה: מַאי טַעְמָא דְּרַב חִסְדָּא? קָסָבַר, וְהַצָּלָה מְצוּיָה הִתִּירוּ, וְהַצָּלָה שֶׁאֵינָהּ מְצוּיָה — לֹא הִתִּירוּ. אֵיתִיבֵיהּ אַבָּיֵי: וְהַצָּלָה שֶׁאֵינָהּ מְצוּיָה לֹא הִתִּירוּ?! וְהָתַנְיָא:
וְכֵן קוֹרָה שֶׁנִּשְׁבְּרָה, סוֹמְכִין אוֹתָהּ בַּסַּפְסָל וּבַאֲרוּכּוֹת הַמִּטָּה! — בִּכְשׁוּרֵי חַדְתֵי דַּעֲבִידִי דְּפָקְעִי. נוֹתְנִין כְּלִי תַּחַת הַדֶּלֶף בְּשַׁבָּת! — בְּבָתֵּי חַדְתִּי דִּשְׁכִיחִי דְּדָלְפִי
Rabba said: What is Rav Chisda’s reason? He holds that regarding prevention against common losses, the Sages permitted moving certain items, but in uncommon cases of loss prevention, they did not permit doing so. Abaye raised an objection: And is it so that in a case of uncommon loss prevention, they did not permit taking steps to protect the object on Shabbat? Wasn’t it taught: “The beam of a roof that broke, one may support it with a bench and with the lengths of a bed frame.” (Even though this is an uncommon case of loss prevention, it is permitted). Rabba answered: This teaching concerns a case of new beams, which commonly break. And Abaye raised another objection: “One may place a vessel beneath a leak in the ceiling on Shabbat.” Rabba answered: This is a case of new houses, which frequently leak.
Naturally, we think of new items as having greater functionality than older ones, which tend to be worn out and on the way to losing their capacity to do the job at peak performance. New items, one would think, should be in perfect working order. But that’s not always the case. Often new items fail to meet the ‘tried and tested’ standard. New materials might not have passed quality control on the manufacturing plant floor. Only with proven experience can we say for certain that a product is up to par.
Just prior to the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007, one of the fastest growing American cities was Las Vegas. Developers were working 24/7 to meet ever-expanding demand and new areas were popping up daily. Houses were snapped up by first-time home-buyers, eager to become part of the region’s incredible wave of growth. Sadly, when the market collapsed, many of these people were left owing mortgage sums far higher than the value of their homes. They were left with no choice but to walk away, their credit rating and pride completely destroyed.
The banks were preparing to resell the properties, when it suddenly came to light that many of the homes were built with major problems. In the rush to build, the developers had cut corners. There were faulty pipes, hastily nailed floorboards and unevenly-laid foundations. The houses may have looked brand new and beautiful, but they were nowhere near as sturdy and stable as those in neighbouring areas that had been around for decades.
That was Yosef’s message to his father. Seniors like aged wine because it symbolizes Judaism’s appreciation of maturity and life experience. We respect the senior members of our community. We don’t dismiss them as relics of a former era. We look to them for guidance, advice, and stability.
According to Jewish law, one must rise, not just when a senior (70+) gets on the bus, but any time they enter the room. In Hebrew, the word for senior is zaken, which our Sages teach is a shortened term for ‘zeh kanah’ – this person has acquired. With age comes an acquisition of wisdom and experience. In fact, even when a wise person loses their brilliance as memory loss strikes, one is still obligated to show them the same honour they once commanded. The Gemara compares such individuals to the Broken Tablets (that Moshe smashed). That shards of the first broken pair were kept in the Holy Ark alongside the Second Tablets. Even once they’re broken, we don’t forsake them.
The older a person is, the closer they are to the Revelation at Sinai. The closer one is to that pivotal moment of the formation of our nation and the establishment of the Divine covenant, the closer one is to our source of life in the Torah. May you forever seek to drink from the well of wisdom and experience of our ziknei ha’eidah – the seniors of the community!