In this week's parashah/Torah Reading, Joseph reveals his identity to his beleaguered brothers and with the Pharaoh's blessing moves his brothers and his father, Jacob, to Egypt. The Torah relates that Jacob’s sons carried their father in the Pharaoh’s wagons and Joseph went to greet his father in Goshen, flinging himself upon his father’s neck to weep. Jacob was 130 years old when he was reunited with his beloved Joseph in Egypt.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "The 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 affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless, are the true gold mines of a culture." (The Insecurity of Freedom)
With ceremony and respect, Jacob was carried to Egypt in the Pharaoh's own wagons. Joseph's brothers are presented to Pharaoh who questions them briefly and assents to their settling in Egypt. Apparently, Jacob, the patriarch of this family, is presented to Pharaoh after his sons are dismissed.
When we read these passages attentively, we see that Jacob is always treated with great respect by his sons . . . all his sons . . . and even by the sovereign of the country in which he seeks a haven.
I wonder if we would pass Rabbi Heschel's test today: would our attitude toward our elders attest to a culture of compassion or of impatience?
Rabbi Ron Isaacs, in his book Kosher Living: It’s More Than Just the Food asks: Is it kosher to visit a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s who doesn’t even know who you are?
Rabbi Isaacs continues: Yes, it certainly is right to take time to visit a person who has Alzheimer’s disease. Though cut off from society, he or she is till a member of society, deserving of care and attention. The Talmud is very explicit in recognizing the dignity of persons with dementia: “Rabbi Joseph learned: This teaches us that both the tablets and the fragments of the tablets were deposited in the ark. Hence, we learn that a scholar who has forgotten his learning through no fault of his own must not be treated with disrespect” (Talmud, Menachot 99a).We who constitute the community of Torat Yisrael need to take an honest look at how we treat our own elderly, incurable and helpless. This past week, I had the sad duty of conducting the funeral of Rosalind Herman. Roz and her husband were among the founders of our congregation. Roz had served as Secretary of our Board for a decade and was President of our Sisterhood for many years as well. We are quickly losing this elder, wise and experienced generation of Torat Yisrael and because those who remain with us are largely homebound or living in a variety of care facilities, they are out of our sight, and therefore, beyond the scope of our vision and awareness.Our Kesher social worker, Andrea Epstein, is a wonderful, caring presence reaching out to many of our housebound, but we should truly not be relying on Andrea to care for and about our elders. They are the elders of our community and without them we lose depth, history and wisdom. I invite you to look for opportunities to embrace our elders and homebound and help organize efforts to weave our elders back into the fabric of our community.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.